Minnesota Lawyer
October 10, 2016

Cultivating Courage and Facing Challenge


From time to time, in your life and mine, we have been daunted by some challenge.  Sometimes we have invited the challenge – learning a new sport, competing in an event, seeking a promotion or appointment.  Other times, we’d rather have run from the unwelcome challenge confronting us –a divorce, a demotion or firing, an illness, or a perceived failure of some kind.

What have been the challenges in your life, both bidden and unbidden, and how did you cultivate the courage to face them?  What are your stories of doing so?

I’d like to share a story of how I faced a challenge.  In doing so, I am heartened by the words of the American writer, Frederick Buechner:  “My story is important not because it is mine . . . but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is yours.”  That is my hope for this article.

Early years of practice.  I began my law practice in public service in Philadelphia as a staff attorney for Community Legal Services, representing public housing tenants and victims of police brutality.  Later, I was appointed an Assistant Attorney General, representing the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.  Years later, the Minnesota Attorney General invited me to continue my environmental law practice, representing the Pollution Control Agency.  At this point, I was mid-career.  All my years of practice had focused on representing the public interest.

Mid-career challenge.  Perhaps as you have done, I wondered whether the grass was greener in a different setting.  Private practice had a certain appeal.  Certainly the downtown law firms had great offices with panoramic views.  And lawyers in private practice were reputed to make a lot of money!  I wondered if I could succeed in that environment.  Was I smart enough?  Could I build a client base and meet the billable hour expectations?  Would I fail?  After all, I was in my mid-40’s and had never done something like this before.  I was naïve and frightened.

While wrestling with the prospect of entering private practice, I wondered if I could identify any challenge even more daunting.  If I could overcome an even greater challenge, I’d have the courage to throw my hat in the ring and enter private practice.  Right away, I knew that learning to swim was just such a challenge for me.  As a small child, older boys had terrified me by holding me under water.  Years later, my fear of water was compounded by a water skiing accident.  I feared water and came to know it as my nemesis.  I never learned to swim.  I simply stayed in the shallow end of the pool.

Confidence earned in the pool.  So, now I turned to the water as a potential ally.  I enrolled in an adult swim class.  Each time I entered the water, I reminded myself of my intention, the for-sake-of-what I was learning to swim.

A young and enthusiastic instructor, at home in the water, coaxed and goaded the class though ten lessons.  Although my resolve was mighty, I failed to learn to swim.  So, I signed up for another series of adult swim classes, with a different instructor.  Like the first instructor, he seemed to have been born in the water and was at ease in it.  That was not true of me and, again, I failed to learn to swim.  In response, I signed-up for a third series of classes.  This time, the instructor had worked at a rehabilitation center.  He had coached paraplegics, amputees and others who were challenged by the prospect of swimming.  He was patient, compassionate and eloquent.  He described how it felt to breathe and move through the water and demonstrated how to do it.  This time, I learned to swim.  Being able to swim the length of the pool was a huge achievement.

Once I learned to swim, I was ready to enter private practice.  I accepted the invitation to join a downtown law firm.  Simply put, I had cultivated the courage I needed for the transition I wanted to make.  I enjoyed success in my years of private practice and I am grateful for the opportunity to have served clients in this way.  After more than a decade of practicing in the private sector, I took on another challenge – establishing a coaching and consulting firm.

Over the years, I have never forgotten how my courage kindled in the pool, kickboard in hand.  Later, I began practicing the martial art of Aikido and training weekly with a gymnastics coach.  I also learned to kayak, including how to do a wet exit and self-rescue.  As I continued to challenge myself, I reminded myself that I was doing so to cultivate the courage needed to thrive.

Lessons learned through neuroscience.  In recent years, neuroscience has informed many everyday experiences, including how we cultivate courage and confidence.  We’ve learned it’s important to feel into the experience as we push beyond a perceived limitation and to remind ourselves of the for-sake-of-what we are doing so.  As we challenge ourselves, the body floods with energy as we move from incoherence (fear, anxiety, and frustration) to coherence (relaxation and a sense of well-being).  We learn to relax under pressure.  We come to know that relaxation is power and that we are better able to advocate for ourselves and others when we’re relaxed.  As we experience all of this, we become more confident, authentic and effective.

From where I stand, courage is cultivated, time and again, by facing challenge.  It is true for me and I’ve witnessed this to be true for others.  I hope it has proven true for you and that you will continue to challenge yourself, cultivating the courage needed to live the life you want to live.

As for me, I recently signed-up for the master swim program at a local health club.  Each time I enter the pool area, I smile when I see the lane markers: “Swim Lane for Masters”.  As I enter the water, I am mindful of my commitment to swim with ease and confidence.  As a novice swimmer, I know that I have a long way to go.  Yet, I know it’s worth it, for I prize the courage that will again be kindled in the pool.

By Dennis Coyne