Living Courageously in a Culture of Safe Achievement

dreamstime_m_54161040Caroline Paul, is a certified bad ass.  She was one of the first female firefighters in San Francisco.  She’s crawled through burning buildings, pulled dead bodies from the San Francisco Bay, piloted experimental aircraft, and walked away from a plane crash.  She’s scaled Mt. Denali, kayaked the Adriatic Sea and survived being sucked into a thundercloud while paragliding.

She is also a phenomenal writer. Her New York Times editorial, Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to Be Scared? is worth a read by anyone with daughters.  And her recent book, The Gutsy Girl, Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, should be mandatory reading for all 10 year olds.

Caroline Paul wasn’t always an adventurer.  Growing up, she was a shy and fearful kid.  She describes her 8 year old self as a scaredy cat, afraid of almost everything.  But as she got older she realized that fear was keeping her from living the life she wanted.  She wanted to live a life of adventure, and she knew that kind of life would be available to her only if she was willing to be challenged, to take risks and to make mistakes. She did all of those things–in spades.  And today she is described as “a modern-day Amazon, Shackleton, Amelia Earhart and Hedy Lamarr rolled into one.”

Interestingly, for many of us life unfolds in the opposite direction.  We grow more fearful (not less) as we get older.  For a lot of us, when we are young life is huge with possibilities. There are so many opportunities stretching before us, like stories waiting to be written.  We feel like we could live whatever life we want.  Nothing holds us back.

Then  life starts happening to us.  We’re bullied by someone at school.  We have a crush on the girl next door and she makes fun of our freckles.  Our heart is broken.  The marriage fails.  The job doesn’t work out.  Someone we love dies.  And slowly we lose the courage to live whatever life we imagined.  We lose that ruddy gusto of youth.  And as we become older, we tell ourselves we’ve also become wiser.

In many ways that’s how life is supposed to work.  After all, experience is an excellent teacher.  Fear tells us about limits.  It keeps us safe. It is an important tool in helping us assess a situation.  In some ways the fear does make us wiser.

But things get a little more complicated for lawyers. We graduate from law school and enter the legal profession conditioned to be fearful.  We discover that our job is to minimize and control risks.  To consider every eventuality and to ensure that our client is protected, no matter what happens.  We learn, the hard way, that you don’t do that by taking chances.

As we move into our profession, we have other experiences.  We’re dressed down by a judge in front of our colleagues.  We lose a big trial.  We miss a filing deadline. We are told that to succeed in this profession, we can’t risk failure.  And fear becomes, not just one of several tools to assess a situation, but our primary motivator.  Fear begins to control how we act. Our decision making becomes more timid. We take less risks.  We avoid new experiences. Other parts of ourselves, like courage, desire or enthusiasm, yield to the single dominant emotion of fear.

In short, we find ourselves living small and invisible lives.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage–Anais Nin

Caroline Paul reminds me that there’s another way to live. No matter how old we are, and no matter our gender, there is a spirit of adventure that resides in all of us.  And a life of adventure is a lot more interesting than a life of safe achievement.

Paul is careful to point out that there is a difference between being courageous and being reckless.  But the best part of The Gutsy Girl are the stories Paul tells of her brushes with disaster.  In those stories, she reminds us that living a life of adventure requires, first and foremost, that we give ourselves permission to make mistakes. This is an important message for lawyers, who staunchly resist (to the detriment of our own growth) the possibility of looking foolish or of being wrong. Paul also reminds us that courage is born, not of perfection, but of tenaciousness in the face of imperfection. Adventurous and interesting lives come on the other side of mistakes.  Courage comes on the other side of making the choice to get up, dust yourself off and keep going.

I will admit, books written for 10 year olds don’t exactly occupy a lot of space on my reading list.  But The Gutsy Girl is worth a blog post.  It reminds me that there is no life of epic adventure without a few epic fails along the way.  Mishaps and blunders will occur.

The question is, in your mind will your blunders be a failure of achievement, or the aftermath of an adventure?  How you answer that question, makes all the difference.

One thought on “Living Courageously in a Culture of Safe Achievement

  1. Perfect post for your little sister as she heads back to work from a Spring Break filled with adventure 🙂
    Can’t wait to check out The Gutsy Girl . . .
    Love ya!

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