I had a light bulb moment in a Target dressing room. I walked out, leaving heaps of clothes behind, because I realized I needed to lose about 30 pounds. Honestly, the effort felt daunting and I had procrastinated for years. I’d made big resolutions in the past, but they failed because I tried to change my entire exercise and diet lifestyle all at once – I burned out and quit. This time, I tried a new approach. I only changed one thing – I logged the food I ate that day. Once I built that habit and gained self-awareness, I made diet changes. Then, I started walking, when I felt more comfortable, I worked out a few days per week at my workplace gym. Then, I increased the frequency. A few months later, I joined a six-day per week bootcamp.
This is not a commercial for losing 30 pounds in 30 days, it’s actually a successful outcome resulting from over one year of baby steps. This time, I lost and kept off 30 pounds. Why did this work so well? Because I took very small steps over time and normalized them. Small steps weren’t scary or overwhelming unlike a 60-day exercise and diet challenge.
What I learned about fear of failure in my weight loss journey transferred to my career. Our big goals are more likely destined for failure if we try to accomplish them all at once, instead of taking a series of small, brave next steps. Recently, a client was telling me about a big promotion she just received. She seemed ready and excited, so I asked why this felt concerning for her? She felt apprehensive under the anxiety of, “But, what if I fail at this?” Like me, she felt this paralyzing fear – keeping us from taking action on dreams and goals in the first place. She had a long track record of success, so as we unfolded her story, her fear of failure wasn’t founded in much truth and when we focused on her accomplishments, her next best steps to prepare for her first few weeks on the job became clear.
I’ve tended to notice a direct correlation: super-high achievers also tend to have a big fear of failure. What also tends to be true, is these achievers haven’t truly failed much, if ever. To clean out the irrational fears, start by drawing a line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the right, write the word failures. List real, true failures. See if you can reflect on your career and find more than one example of when you’ve tried something and failed so miserably that you pummeled into the pit of despair and couldn’t climb out.
On the left write, creative problems. List at least three times in your career when you faced what felt like insurmountable challenge (that likely induced your fear of failure critic). Now, for each problem, list the skills, creative ideas and strategies you used to surmount these career events.
Reflecting on your list, you may need to prove me wrong, but I have an sense that your ego likes to ruminate about all the possibilities of failure more often than you have actually, truly failed. On the creative problems side, you have a solid list of skills, tools and experiences that you can use to apply to the “What if I fail?” situation sitting in front of you. These are real, transferrable skills you can use to build your confidence and apply to your new opportunity.
Going back to my weight loss example, the secret behind that process, which I still use today, is to take baby steps. I often start my goal plan by writing, “By this time next year….” As I imagine myself one year from today, I envision in detail what I’ll be experiencing and enjoying. Then, baby-step that backwards. Given where you want to be in one year, what actions will you need to take at six months, three months, one month, next week?
What is the bravest, smallest step that you can do today advances you in the next direction of where you want to go? For me and my weight loss goal, it was only to write down what I ate that day. If you’re dreaming of earning a promotion, your first step could be to write down three recent accomplishments in a career journal, so you can build your confidence and recall them as you begin to prepare for interviews.
A metaphor that continues to help me outsmart fear of failure is, counterintuitively, not to attack it head on with big moves. That has simply proven to wake up my inner fear critic, leaving me paralyzed and wanting to just binge watch my favorite Netflix series. Instead, I think of fear like a sleeping bear. Seeing the bear itself is scary, but we don’t rush the bear and manhandle it. Instead, we tiptoe around the bear with our bravest, smallest step. This helps us live at the edge of our comfort zone by building solid habits, but not leaping too far into waking up our fearful inner critic.
What is a brave micro-step you’ll take today?