Nine Pathways to Lawyering (and Living) in the Thriving Zone - Articles

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Posted by: David Shearon on May 1, 2013

Journal Issue Date: May 2013

Journal Name: May 2013 - Vol. 49, No. 5

Thriving, both in the law and in other areas of our lives, requires commitment, energy, and engagement. As the flowchart shows, failure is part of thriving.

It is not failure that determines how much of what we really want — positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement — we get in life; it is how we respond. We can choose to live in the thriving zone, or we can languish in the failure zone. Either way, there’s lots of failure and ultimately death — so much for those of us involved in positive psychology being “too sunny”!

The more time we spend time in the thriving zone, the smaller the failures. There’s a difference in failing to get your spouse to take an extra day off during the holidays and failing to establish and maintain a satisfying relationship in the first place! Or between failure to snare a particular new client and failure in having enough of the right kind of clients at all!

Unfortunately, law school and the practice of law drains the commitment, energy, and engagement needed to keep turning back to the thriving zone. Without them, it can be tough to maintain the high standards of professionalism. In fact, it can sometimes even be hard to accomplish competent lawyering. In a recent survey, 41 percent of the Tennessee attorneys who responded identified lack of commitment, energy, and engagement as a more significant cause of poor lawyering than lack of knowledge of substantive law or lack of law practice management skills.[1]

How much are you thriving?

There are reasons why you might want to study the thriving adaptations listed below other than your own personal level of thriving, e.g., because you lead, manage or live with one or more lawyers who are not thriving. Still, might be a good idea to think for a moment about your own level of thriving before we dive in. Here’s a tool to help with that.

What is thriving?

Thriving = Achieving
Personally meaningful goals
In multiple life domains
Despite significant challenges

Note two aspects of this definition. First, it does NOT define whether you are “a good person.” That depends on the goals you set. It may be that crime syndicate bosses are "thriving” — so remember to bring your moral values with you as well. Second, one cannot “thrive” without challenges. It is the overcoming of challenges that makes thriving such an accomplishment. It is possible to imagine being able to achieve personally meaningful goals in multiple life domains easily and with little effort if only clients weren’t so demanding, competitive pressure was less, my spouse was more supportive, my children would shape up, etc., etc., etc. Such thoughts are not realistic. It is a common deep belief that life, love, success, whatever “should be easier than this,”[2] but “easy” is ultimately unsatisfying. We rarely value what comes easily. Fortunately, as lawyers, we have lots of challenges — so thriving is readily available to us!

Thriving Adaptations

This is where many articles would give you “7 Easy Steps to Happier Lawyering” or some such. Well, we cannot go that far. Although the effort to thrive is rewarding right from the beginning, it is not easy. But it is doable, and the key to getting started is to SPS-It!

SPS - it!

Recent research supports the idea that even a very small change in behavior can be effective — what you might think of as the “Smallest Possible Step.” Two minutes of exercise a day can reduce pain and tenderness in adults with shoulder and neck problems.[3] Writing about positive experiences for as little as two minutes a day for two days can have significant effects on well-being and reported physical health![4] Squeezing a handgrip for as long as you can twice a day for two weeks can significantly increase self-control.[5] So, SPS-it! Identify the smallest possible step that would begin to move you in the direction of your goal, take it, and see what happens. SPSs are suggested with each of the following. You can use the accompanying Action Planning form to plan to reach some goals for greater thriving — copy it for each new goal — in a way that research indicates will increase your success.[6] As you can see, SPS is incorporated into that process.

What if I have failed in the past?

Well, of course you have. Haven’t we all? James Prochaska[7] has researched the change process extensively and found that most individuals who successfully make difficult changes (quitting smoking, for example) often succeed only after making multiple attempts. Along the way, we usually cycle through different stances toward change that might be called:

  • ignoring the need,
  • thinking about it,
  • getting ready, and
  • trying something.

Trying something can lead to success which can often become habit (Prochaska calls this “maintenance”) or failure. After failure, we may go back to ignoring the need for a time before thinking about it again. Life in the thriving zone is about moving quickly but thoughtfully back into the thriving zone after failure.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The pathways are made up of skills. Skills take practice. You can learn them better and practice them more efficiently if you can get some instruction as you start the learning process and some coaching as you go forward. In Tennessee, group CLE events and personal coaching in these skills can be eligible for MCLE credit — check for approved courses at You can also find non-CLE (not everything you undertake to learn and develop has to get CLE credit!) support for your efforts, including formal instruction and coaching. Ideas are included with each session.

Before you start!

How close are you to disaster? Is there a chance you are, right now, depressed to the point that it has been significantly affecting your life for more than a couple of weeks? Have bouts of being way down become more prolonged or frequent for you? Is alcohol, drugs, gambling, or any other addictive behavior putting you, your career, or your relationships in jeopardy? If so, you’re likely still going to need to work on some of the pathways below, but, right now, you need someone on your side with the training and experience to help you navigate out. Find that person or persons! You may know where to start. If so, do it. Now! If not, call TLAP, (877) 424-8527, and get them working for you.

Nine Pathways

Here are nine pathways into the thriving zone that have been selected because there is substantial research evidence that they pay off for most people who try them. Each one involves a set of skills. For each, I’ve provided both a description and some “Smallest Possible Steps” (SPS) ideas:

Pathway #1 — Resilience Thinking: Instead of adopting pessimism, cynicism, and negativity as minimal adaptations, lawyers can develop Resilience Thinking. Resilience Thinking is generally optimistic, but flexibly and realistically so. It involves skills that enable you to capture the heat-of-the-moment thoughts, judgments, evaluations, characterizations, and beliefs your brain pops up when an event happens. It is these thoughts, judgments, etc. that drive your emotions and reactions, not the events themselves. Amazingly enough — and I know this is going to shock you — your heat-of-the-moment thoughts, etc. may sometimes be neither accurate nor productive. Or, more simply, sometimes you are wrong, and wrong in ways that hold you back.

Further, each of us is subject to our own personal patterns of inaccuracy, but there are commonalities in the patterns. By learning to identify your personal patterns, you can more quickly identify situations where your thinking may inaccurately and inflexibly be leading you to unproductive behavior and learn to break out of those patterns to consider and adopt more accurate or more flexible thoughts, beliefs, etc. that will allow you to move forward in new and unexpected ways.

Finally, the thriving adaptation of Resilience Thinking includes the ability to recognize when deep patterns — your core values and beliefs — have been triggered and are driving you. Sometimes, this can happen without your awareness. As a result, you may be confused by emotions you do not understand and perhaps struggle to control, or surprised or disappointed by behaviors (or the lack thereof!) that keep you from moving forward. By ascertaining the exact nature of those deep patterns, the “shoulds” and “ought-tos” and “just the way it is” beliefs that you have been living with for years or even decades, you have an opportunity to assess those deep patterns for accuracy and flexibility and how well they work for you. Then you may work to change or even replace them.

SPS #1: Start noticing events that have an impact on you and, as soon as possible, write down exactly what happened as objectively — just the facts! — as you can, then what you thought and the feelings and reactions that flowed from the thoughts. Were your thoughts, feelings, and reactions moving you toward your goals? If not, were there any possible errors in your thinking?

SPS #2: Look for training in Resilience Thinking — some may be available for CLE credit.

SPS #3: Get a coach. If you have trouble finding one, contact the author for assistance.


  • Learned Optimsim by Martin E.P. Seligman
  • The Resilience Factor by Reivich and Shattè
  • Mindset by Carol Dweck
  • Immunity to Change by Kegan and Lahey
  • Smart Strengths by Yeager, Fisher & Shearon (chapters 7-8)

Pathway #2 - Strengths Focus: Most of us believe we can best improve by fixing our weaknesses, but a strong and growing body of research suggests we often underestimate the possible gains from focusing on strengths. There are a number of tools and approaches out there. The US Army in the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program focuses on the “Values in Action” Inventory of Strengths (the “VIA”). The Gallup organization has another tool (see the book by Tom Rath below). Identify your signature strengths, understand their impact and value, seek to use them more, explore which ones you are “leaving in the box," and manage shadow sides. This will help meet several of the challenges, but especially the challenges of Values Conflicts and Necessary Evils. A firm- or department-wide implementation could begin to turn Culture from a challenge to a support. The VIA is available for free on a research website run by the University of Pennsylvania, You can get Gallup’s more work-focused assessment of strengths by purchasing the Tom Rath book below.

SPS #4: Take VIA at, choose one of you top 4-7 strengths that really seems to be you, and plan a new way to use it next week. Carry out your plan. You might choose to take this step in conjunction with someone close to you. Research indicates this will likely have significant positive benefits for you.[8]

SPS #5: Get your spouse or someone who knows you well to take the VIA answering the questions about you. Do the same for them. Discuss. What did you learn?

SPS #6: Spend some time thinking about which of your top strengths you are bringing to your practice and which you may be leaving “in the box.” Why? What would happen if you were more _________ in your practice?

SPS #7: Try to guess the strengths of a family member or someone you work with. Watch for behaviors that manifest the character strengths. Consider talking with them about what you notice.


  • Smart Strengths by Yeager, Fisher & Shearon (chapters 1-5)
  • Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath

Pathway #4 - Emotional Intelligence: Instead of pushing emotions away, use them — both yours and others — to better understand and approach challenging situations. Much of the work you might do in developing Resilience Thinking will help with this because you will necessarily study and become more fluent with the connections between certain categories of thoughts and emotions. For example, thoughts about trespass or violation of rights typically lead to emotions in the family of anger, thoughts about loss lead to feelings of sadness, and thoughts about making a positive future lead to hope.

SPS #8: Look up a list of emotion words — positive and negative — on the internet. Just having names for emotions will help improve your emotional intelligence. But, think critically about the lists; you may see words that are really judgments, e.g., “ignored,” in the lists. You may think you were ignored, but you will feel angry or sad or whatever according to what that thought meant to you.

SPS #9: Take a place where you are stuck or a problem you haven’t been able to resolve. List the key players in the situation, including yourself, and think about what each is currently feeling and what it would be ideal for them to feel. What are you able and willing to do to help them feel that way?[9]


  • The Emotionally Intelligent Manager by Caruso and Salovey
  • Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman

Pathway #5 - Appreciative Approach: This adaptation involves looking for what is right, first. The skill of “Strengths Focus” is a start in this direction. Basically, this adaptation involves identifying what is right in others, in organizations, or in situations, and seeking to achieve more by trying to build on or develop what is right. Just spotting what is going well — the good stuff — can often make a significant difference.

SPS #10 “Right Spotting”: Take a few minutes each night before you go to bed and write down three good things that happened that day. Then write one sentence of reflection about why the good thing happened, or what you or others did to cause it, or what it means for you, or how you can have more of it in the future. Continue for one week and note the results in your mood, your sleep, and how you go through your days.[10]

SPS #11: Take a problem or place where you are stuck and look for everything that is strong, right, good, or as you want in it, even if just a little bit. Talk with others involved in the situation about what might be right. Talk about what it would be like if over the next few years you achieved all your goals in that situation — what would a day be like? Identify any steps you can take now to move in that direction.


  • Thanks by Robert Emmons
  • Appreciative Intelligence byThatchenkery & Metzker
  • The Power of Appreciative Inquiry, by Whitney & Trosten-Bloom
  • Appreciative Team Building by Whitney, Trsten-Bloom, Cherney & Fry

Pathway #6 - Mindfulness: Don’t let this scare you. All I mean by mindfulness is nonjudgmental attention to what you are experiencing now. It can be developed through formal meditation practices, through practices such as progressive muscle relaxation, or disciplines such as yoga, but there are other approaches also. The two books listed below are very practically oriented. The first was written based on training Google developed to promote emotional intelligence in the second is by a business school professor and widely popular in that world.

SPS #12: Look up an audio “progressive muscle relaxation” exercise on the internet — has several — and try it.

SPS #13: Identify resources in your area for instruction and coaching. Yoga is one to check out. You might also try entering the search phrase “mindfulness based stress reduction” and the name of the closest city in an internet search engine.


  • Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan
  • Happiness at Work by Srikumar Rao

Pathway #7 - Relationship-Building Communications: The late positive psychology researcher and teacher Chris Peterson summed up the findings of positive psychology with, “Other people matter.” Relations are built on communications and shared experiences. If you look back, you will note that several of the Thriving Adaptations just discussed will generally work to improve relationships. For example, Pragmatic Optimism not only makes us better at sustaining relationships, it makes us more attractive also. In addition, these skills can help us do a much better job of analyzing events that may generate the need for tough conversations. Further, our deep patterns of beliefs and values often are involved in our closest relationships and toughest conversations, and uncovering what’s really going on with you first can radically increase your chance of having a relationship-building communication. However, there are some specific techniques to learn, practice and master.

SPS #14: Do something to “warm up” an important relationship.

SPS #15: Learn one new thing that’s important to someone close to you.


  • Energize Your Workplace by Jane Dutton
  • Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton & Heen

Pathway #8 - Energy and Health Management: Thriving is about more than just our mental and emotional states – it extends to the body. Even a little more sleep, exercise and improved eating can make a big difference. This area is made tougher by all the “guidance” that may or may not have a good scientific basis. In general, there is less solid knowledge about diet and exercise than you might think, whether you are talking about what is a “balanced” diet or how much and what kind of exercise is best. Don’t let this stop you, and particularly don’t let the fact you have tried and failed before stop you. That’s part of the process. The books listed will be even more helpful if you have worked on some of the Resilience Thinking skills.

SPS #16: If you have not had a full medical check up, schedule one. Be sure to ask the doctor to check things that might affect your mood or energy.

SPS #17: Go for a short walk. Now.

SPS #18: Go to bed 30 minutes to 1 hour earlier three nights in a row. Results?

SPS #19: Set up an appointment with a nutritionist (check with your doctor or the local YMCA for suggestions).

SPS #20: Buy a pedometer (models by Omron work well) and record your steps for a week. How close are you to 10,000 steps per day?

SPS #21: Write down everything you eat for three days.


  • Smarts and Stamina by Shaar and Britton
  • The Beck Diet Solution by Judith Beck

Pathway #9 - Service: Get connected to something bigger or greater than yourself. This can be through religious beliefs, but it can also come through connection to your community or your profession. Research confirms that when individuals consciously focus on the good they are doing, they are less stressed and less likely to suffer burnout in demanding jobs.[11]

SPS #22: What is something you have always wanted to do that could be called service and would connect you to something bigger or greater than yourself? Pro bono work? Go on a mission trip with your church? Work with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or coach a youth sports team? Volunteer with the Red Cross? Identify one person you could talk with about making that dream a reality and set up an appointment.

SPS #23: Call your local bar association to ask about training for pro bono cases.

SPS #24: List three ways in which what you do as a lawyer serves society. Pick a way and make a plan to bring it more into your practice.

Conclusion — well, not really!

Thriving is a process. I hope what you have read here will help you spend a little more time in the thriving zone! I would wish you good luck, but perhaps the more appropriate admonition is, “Get going!”


  • American College of Sports Medicine (2011). Two minutes of exercise a day can keep the pain away. Retrieved June 7, 2011, from
  • Burton, C. and King, L. (2007). Effects of (very) brief writing on health: the two minute miracle. British Journal of Health Psycholgy, 00, 1-7.
  • Fenichel, M. (2000). Asynchronously live from APA 2000. Retrieved 1/1/2013 from
  • Grant, A., & Sonnentag, S. (2008). Doing good buffers against feeling bad: Prosocial impact compensates for negative task and self evaluations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 111, 13-22.
  • Muraven, M. (2010). Building self-control strength: practicing self-control leads to improved self-control performance. Journal of Experimental Soicial Psychology 46, 465-468.
  • Prochaska J., Norcross, J. & Diclemente, C. (1994). Changing for good: A revolutionary six-stage program for overcoming bad habits and moving your life positively forward. Reprinted 2002. New York, NY: Quill.
  • Seligman, M. (1991). Learned optimism. Knopf, New York, NY.
  • Seligman, M., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
  • Shearon, D. (2008). Causes of poor lawyering. Retrieved 1/1/2013 from


  1. Shearon, D. (2008).
  2. Fenichel, M. (2000).
  3. American College of Sports Medicine, 2011.
  4. Burton, C. and King, L., 2007.
  5. Muraven, M. 2010.
  6. Halvorson, H., 2010.
  7. Prochaska J., Norcross, J. & Diclemente, C. (1994).
  8. Seligman, M., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005)
  9. This suggestion draws on the work of Charles J. Wolfe, who presented a series of CLE programs in Tennessee, sponsored by the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education & Specialization in 2008. See,
  10. Seligman, M., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005).
  11. Grant, A. and Sonnentag, S., 2009.