Attitudes, Actions, and Accessories:  Notes from the Desk of the Professionalism-Obsessed

Happy New Year, Everyone!  I am so excited to welcome in 2013 and to welcome all of you to my monthly professionalism column.  It is my hope that these posts will be engaging and thought-provoking, and that they will help all of us as we reflect on our professionalism values and goals. 

As one who loves themes and firmly believes that a New Year can be a wonderful opportunity for fresh starts, personal and professional growth and exciting new adventures, I struggled to decide what topic to discuss in this kick-off post.  I wrote a few different pieces, and then as I sat in a coffee shop one day in late November, it occurred to me that I should talk about how fear – and more specifically, our reactions to it – may help or hinder our professional success.

It may seem counterintuitive to start this column – which I intend to infuse with positivity and encouragement - with a topic that can have such a negative connotation.  Fear is associated with things we don’t want to do, or see, or be a part of.  When I initially think of the word, I think of things that give me an uneasy feeling in the bottom of my stomach and put a sour look (aka a frown) on my face.  Yet I think fear can have a positive influence in our professional lives.  Its presence may well indicate that we sense an opportunity to push ourselves, promote ourselves, or pursue our most exhilarating ambitions.  As we dive into 2013, what better time is there to reflect on our professional aspirations and resolve to reach them?

Some excellent reading material already exists on fear, from books like On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life, by Arianna Huffington, to blog posts like Alison Monahan’s recent piece on The Girl’s Guide to Law School,On Fear and Fearlessness”.  My own impetus for writing on the topic stemmed from a great conference I attended a few months ago and in particular, the inspiring messages relayed by the Keynote Speaker about the benefits of pursuing those professional opportunities that we are afraid of, yet also find exciting and worthwhile.  In fact, that speech was a motivating factor in my decision to apply for the Ms. JD Writer-in-Residence Program!

So, then, what do I wish to contribute to this conversation?  My goals are two-fold:  In light of the fact that this is a column on professionalism, I think it is important to highlight that our fears – and what we do with them – affect our professional lives and identities.  Taking that one step further, I want to encourage all of you to contemplate the role of fear in your own careers.  As an experiential learning professor, I often remind my students about the importance of reflection.  Reflection can lead to so many positives, like self-awareness, establishment of goals, and determination of how to best reach those goals.  That last part is really a form of resolution --- a word we are perhaps inundated with this time of year, but I would argue for good reason.  Goal-setting can sometimes seem unnecessary, but goals are important elements by which to evaluate desires, achievements, capabilities, and opportunities. 

I would encourage all of you to make at least one resolution this year, and it is an easy one.  Just take some time during 2013 to reflect about your career path, and specifically:  How and when have you faced your professional fears in the past, and how did things turn out?  What are some opportunities that make your eyes widen with wonderment --- the kind where you simultaneously think, “Wow, this could be amazing!” and “Wow, am I capable of accomplishing this great thing?! [I think I am!]”  For example: 

  • Do you want to go for the “it” project? 
  • Do you want to seek a promotion? 
  • Get your LL.M.? 
  • Move to a different practice area? 
  • Change jobs? 
  • Mentor? 
  • Write? 
  • Serve on the board of a professional association? 
  • Send an informational meeting request to someone whom you admire? 
  • Request a raise? 
  • For those of you who are students, do you want to take XYZ class even though its challenging content seems a tad over your head?  Is there an internship you really want to apply to, but are afraid to go for?  Do you want to participate in moot court, but worry about whether your public speaking skills are up to par?    

The next reflective step I would suggest is to ask yourself why you are afraid to do something.  Doing so will help you weed out those ideas that are not constructive or focused enough, or that might very well have negative ramifications.  Also, some opportunities might be frightening because they just aren’t ones that you are interested in (even if your best friend/boss/other person in your life is).  These aren’t the right kind of scary opportunities, if you will.  Rather, what we’re discussing are those opportunities that you might fear because of, say, fear of failure, but that you would otherwise love to pursue.  It goes back to that double wow factor I referenced earlier.

For example, you may have a moment where you think, “I really want to present at XYZ conference next year --- I could present that awesome paper I wrote and meet some great people in my field!”  But then you think, “Oh, but what if I get nervous and fumble through my speech?  What if I can’t think of anything to say for the whole 45 minutes?” And then you think, “That could really damage my career, especially since [insert Important Person’s name] will be at the conference.”  It’s a domino effect of self-doubt and stamping down an idea that more likely than not would actually further advance your career.  I know this column is not intended to be a “do’s and don’ts list”, but I will say this:  Don’t do this to yourself!   

That said, I know that it is all well and good for me to offer up all of this advice to face your fears and seize the day, but it can be really hard to face and surmount fears.  It can be costly --- for example, the decision to change jobs could mean a decrease in earnings.  It can be time-consuming.  It can be exhausting.  And at the end of the day, while accepting a challenge and facing your fears may be immensely rewarding - even the exercise itself can be fulfilling - the reality is that it could also result in less-than-stellar results.  Further, some might contend that the stakes are higher for women – if we face our fears and take chances, do we risk more vulnerability to negative judgment than our male counterparts? 

I know I’ve offered a lot of queries in this post and not many answers, but it is not for me to tell you which of your fears are worthwhile pursuits.  It is not for me to determine the choices you make as a professional, or which ones will deliver the greatest successes.  You are the best decision-maker in your own professional life, and so I offer this by way of encouragement:

In high school, I worked with a fantastic acting teacher and director.  Among his many attributes, he was intuitive.  He quickly saw that while I adored performing and had some talent (if I do say so myself), I was often subject to significant stage fright (until I actually stepped onstage) and self-doubt.  One day as I vocalized some of that doubt to him, he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received:  “You need to trust yourself”.  That message has stuck with me all these years (so many years!), and I always find that when I do really, truly, fully trust myself – my instincts, my capabilities, my decisions – that is when I am most successful.

So today I pass on that smart advice to all of you – trust yourselves.  Face your fears.  You may decide not to pursue an opportunity you fear because it isn’t worth the tradeoffs, isn’t a smart choice for another reason, or isn’t accompanied by an exhilarating, positive emotion.  I would argue that such decisions are in and of themselves the sign of a mature, courageous professional.  But -- you may very well be afraid of something that is worth pursuing.  Don’t hold yourself back (there I go again with the “do’s and don’ts”).  Make the most of your career.  Seek challenges.  Be a conscientious professional, one who consistently strives to better herself.  Doing so benefits your clients, your colleagues, your profession, yourself.  And when you make such decisions, please think about your own happiness –it does matter (another “do”… I can’t stop!).  More on happiness in a consequent post, by the way --- we’ll take a look at the happiness movement, if you will, and the work of authors such as Gretchen Rubin.

I encourage all of you to make 2013 your year to acknowledge your professional fears and think through them.  For those you deem worth facing, tackle them in the mud (or perhaps more appropriately for some of you this time of year, the snow), throw them in the air and spin them like a New York-style pizza (or Chicago deep dish, or Neapolitan … anyone else hungry?), and use them like a jet propeller toward triumph.  Go, go, go!!  

Next month, we’ll take a look at simple things we can do to love our daily professional lives more.   

Until next post,



Write a comment

Please login to comment

Remember Me

Become a Member

FREE online community for women in the legal profession.



Subscribe to receive regular updates, news, and events from Ms. JD.

Connect with us

Follow or subscribe