Ellen Roberts, Lawyer and former Colorado state representative and senator, on taking risks and controlling fear

by Patty Templeton

Hey all you goal-setters and go-getters, we’re solidly into the new year. If your resolutions have turned from, “I WILL WIN AT LIFE,” to “I will only drink six Coors a night,” it might be time to reassess your life path. Enter DGO’s “Decisions (and how to make them better) series.” In our first installment, Dave Thibodeau, co-founder and owner of Ska Brewing, talked about how to frame a day for success. For this chapter, DGO talked to former politician and now Durango local Ellen Roberts. Roberts spent six years in the Colorado Senate and four in the House. She resigned from the Colorado Legislature to focus on her private law practice, which specializes in water law and natural resource consulting. Roberts throws down about how the road to success can mean taking risks, identifying your core values, and surrounding yourself with the folks that are gonna make you wanna do better rather than scumbag around.

Taking informed risks instead of standing stillI haven’t ever felt a decision was immobilized by fear. More so, I’d pause and ask myself, “What do I need to know? Who do I need to talk to? What do I need to read? What do I need to acquire knowledge-wise to gain familiarity and make a choice?” It’s stopping to get more information to make a choice.

Some of the choices I have made, the more normal person would say, “I don’t think so.” I am a willing risk-taker, but I try and carefully think through an idea before I take that risk. To get into politics, you have to be a risk-taker; you have put yourself out there.

Integrity in decision-makingIn politics, there are individuals who became known for whoever talked to that person last had the decision-maker’s vote. I never wanted to be known as that. I would hope that someone would gather information and take a comprehensive view and not just go with the wind.

The way I looked at it was, I had about 165,000 people in my district who I needed to take into consideration.

As a lawyer, I felt like my job was to know enough to explain to my client, “Here’s the different paths,” and it was the client, with my advice, who chooses the path.

As a legislator, it was a different setting, where I would try to explore the different paths, but it fell on my shoulders to make the decision and it was up to my constituents to tell me if I was on track.

Core values and controlling fear You need to know what your core values are so that your decisions can align with those core values. Knowing that it’s not a perfect world and there are times where you’ll make a decision that maybe you’re not 100 percent happy with, but you have to make a decision and move on.

It is controlling the fear of failing. You’re not going to eliminate it. Fear of failing is fairly innate in almost everyone. It’s controlling it or modulating it to not doubt yourself or make yourself miserable.

You need to, I think, justify your choices internally. In a business setting or personal life, you want to know the value and judgment of yourself … At the end of the day, I have to take a deep breath and be able to say, “I’m OK with who I am and what I did.”

No one is an islandSomebody said this and it sounds kind of trite, but it is totally true: There’s no “I” in “team.” That sounds high school, but it really impacted me, particularly in the political world. A politician’s job is about teamwork, whether that’s with your party, the people you work with every day, or your home base. It’s important, I think, that to arrive at the best decision, you talk to people. You consider a lot of input.

From my particular district, whether that was my House district or my Senate district, there would never be a 100-percent agreement. It was a given that there would be unhappy people, but my rationale was if I really did my background work, I accept the consequences, and was willing to explain how the choice was made.

We are living in what I consider a really noisy time. As I thought about it, one third of that is white noise. It’s there, it’s distracting, but in a harmless way. One third of the noise is black noise, destructive and more poisonous. One third of that noise though is valuable. You shouldn’t shut off from the noise because there is insight there.

We’re in an age of connectedness that prior generations haven’t experienced. We shouldn’t be afraid of hearing the valuable noise, the exchange of ideas, cultures, customs. It can be helpful for personal development and expanding your perspective.

Making lists but living flexibleGoals are important to me. I’m a list-maker. I can’t get through a day without lots of lists. I’m always updating them – pros and cons list, priorities lists.

You can set goals through an officially organized retreat or through journaling or contemplative time, staring at your navel but thinking, “Where do I want to go?” and, “How will I get there?” is important.

I’ve always thought of it as, if something I thought I wanted doesn’t happen, it wasn’t meant to be. Not to be fatalistic or anything, but Garth Brooks has a great song, now quite old, that says, “Thank God for unanswered prayers.” I’m a glass-half-full person, and I assume that if I didn’t get something I thought I wanted, it means that there is something else I’m supposed to do.

Recharging mattersMy desire for doing the job well, a way I would feel good about it, became encompassing. Good things like healthy eating, exercise, I (had) let slide. Fortunately, in this past year, I’ve gained them back by coming back home.

Sometimes you have to be willing to step away from what seems all-consuming. I took a three-week course on leadership back at Harvard. Got a scholarship to go. They called it “getting up on the balcony.” It’s resilience training. Life is the dance floor and you step up on the balcony to take a breath. That is important for people, no matter where the decision-making is happening. When you feel most caught up in the washing machine spin cycle, take a time out and step back. Getting that perspective is important. Then, you can step back in and more effectively engage.

That’s what’s so nice about time outdoors. So many of us in Southwest Colorado, we know we’re a long ways from a lot of places, but we’re not a long ways from beautiful surroundings.

I also have my personal faith. It is really important to me. Whatever faith someone might have or whatever way they might use to get in touch with their spiritual side, to see life as only a small moment in a big timespan, it puts things in perspective.

Surround yourself with do-ers The (political) parties recycle the same drama, the same arguments. It helps them in the next election cycle to keep some of that. I was a little too Pollyanna to be into that drama. I presumed we were all there to solve problems and find common ground and, over time, realized that there are people with that similar mindset, but there are those people whose worst nightmare is a political problem solved – one of the big (problems) that brings people’s emotions up and is important to their values. Some politicians stoke those issues, keep them going. That was one reason I decided 10 years was enough. I decided to go hang out and work with people who were truly dedicated to problem-solving. It’s not to say everyone in politics isn’t, but it wasn’t constructive enough for me.

I would encourage people, in any setting, that if you feel like there are those people around you who are not interested in solving problems but keeping them going, there’s a certain point where moving on may make a lot of sense.

Starting the day with calmI have my first cup of tea. It is about taking a moment before the day starts to pause.

I have a great rocking chair that my husband got for me, and I named it “Buster.” It’s like a 1950s, Route 66, big chair. My first cup of tea and Buster set me up for a really good day. I might check my email or read the paper, but I usually just have my notebook nearby, in case I think of something.

Success and taking next steps that aren’t clear-cut To be clear, my mother has never accepted that a political life was success. Which is OK. I appreciate that. I understand it. Politics is a bit of a bloodsport.

I feel incredibly lucky that I have had the self-confidence and personal drive to go out and be really where I thought I was supposed to be. I’m never quite sure where I am supposed to go to next. I feel like I am where I am supposed to be and what happens next unfolds as time goes on.

I’m not sure I would define me as a success. I don’t feel badly. I don’t feel like a failure, but I don’t know what success really is. I had certain goals and then was able to achieve some of those. Still now, I ask myself what is next and don’t know.

My dad died when I was 32. It’s not 12, but it was a pretty life-altering event in terms of measuring how you spend your time on Earth. I just appreciate every day that I do get. That I have gotten to see my kids grow up.

I am excited to be Ellen next. I’m practicing water law. I’m working on forest health issues. I’m living here. I’ll be traveling around the state as I do the work I’m doing. I had my 35th wedding anniversary on New Year’s Eve. I have two grown kids who are healthy and happy. I don’t think it gets any better than that.

Finding leadership in othersIf I could have lunch with a leader, Condoleezza Rice would be a big one … She would be somebody who would be really interesting to spend time with.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity. Patty Templeton


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