Simon is an up-and-coming fashion designer who literally fights a mental and physical battle prior to each showing of his work.
Keith, an actor, is nauseous before performances, anticipating the demands of pleasing a new audience every night.
Lily is a published author dealing with “imposter syndrome,” wondering each time she prepares a manuscript for submission, When will they discover I’m just me trying to be a writer?
Sara forces herself to smile entering department meetings. She is intimidated by her colleagues’ level of expertise.
Each of these individuals is experiencing, to some degree or another and in uniquely personal ways, “out of my league” syndrome. They feel deeply challenged by opportunities to give from their stores of knowledge, talent, ability, and qualification.
Most of us would never guess this.
Simon’s work is astounding and creative; Keith goes from role to role without difficulty; Lily is, by many standards, a successful author; Sara appears confident and makes significant contributions to her employer’s insurance firm.
But, like many of us, each carries feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, nervousness or intimidation, fear and anxiety in those moments before stepping forward to offer one’s work to audiences, publishers, co-workers and bosses, critics or customers.
“Out of my league” syndrome is more than personal insecurity—it is a belief that others are superior and have attained a somehow elusive (to you) level of achievement.
Well, the good news is there’s help with that.
For nearly four decades, I’ve carefully observed and questioned people who do hard things like it’s their mission in life, consistently putting themselves “out there” well beyond a comfortable zone and who grow increasingly brave and successful. None are without misgivings.
Here are their strategies, condensed into 15 DOs and 5 DO NOTs.
The Fifteen DOs
- Create an environment that makes it easier to shine. Write down the intimidating task at hand—an audition, an interview, a meeting, a crucial conversation, a project, a performance, a speech. Whatever it is, jot down everything that could go right AND REMOVE ALL POSSIBLE BARRIERS TO THESE.
Here’s just one example from a recent conference I attended.
What could go right?
– I present myself well. (Clothes are clean and pressed, I get up early to allow for special hair and make-up, my shoes are shined, I leave 15 minutes earlier than usual to be on time, I plan for a mirror check, I breathe and smile.)
Incidentally, a related “go right” item was “I feel relaxed and happy among people I don’t know…yet.” Because I’d removed barriers to self-confidence, I could be myself more easily.
- On the topic of breathing, breathe. Oxygenate your blood to free your brain to do its best work. Do this consciously, slowly, breathing in gratitude for a cool opportunity and breathing out jitters and self-defeating thoughts.
- Make a list of past successes. Trust your record. In the event that the list feels short and you’re tackling new hard things, expand the list with life lessons you’ve learned that relate to the challenge at hand.
- Pray and/or meditate. I’ve noticed this is actually a very common practice for people who are seeking help and, particularly, a new way of seeing their opportunities and circumstances. Frequently, after praying about and pondering my fear/anxiousness, I feel inklings of thought about what to do. They are always positive, often simple, and consistently effective in getting past hurdles to the work that needs to be done.
- Talk yourself into it. I have a friend who lives with social anxiety. She also teaches and mentors in community settings regularly, and is an avid self-educator. On the morning of an event, she starts with “I can do this” and keeps up the positive self-talk throughout the day. “This is going to be great. I’ll be glad I did it.” Her outcome? The event is great, and she’s glad she did it, even though she felt like running from the opportunity at times.
- Freewrite. Take paper and a favorite writing instrument, find a spot where you won’t be interrupted, and spill everything onto in writing. Keep going till there is nothing left to say. What you do next is up to you. You can read and analyze what you’ve written; you can crumple it all into a ball and throw it away; you can save it as a record of your state of mind before and compare it to your state of mind after you face your challenge; you can put it away and decide later what its value is. Freewriting is, not ironically, freeing.
- Stop thinking about it and do it. And don’t turn back. I’ve seen this brand of determination exemplified by close associates, young, mature, and in between, in the hardest of times and it is remarkable what they surmount. My young millennial friends are especially good at this. It’s like they don’t believe in barriers…the kind some of us who are older have believed were always there.
- Have a long conversation with someone who believes in you. Spell it out—all the reasons you’re feeling out of your league, what you believe you’re facing, what you actually want, and how you’re planning to overcome. Then listen. My powerhouse friend Rebecca suggests to do this on a walk—you’ll get the double benefit of the talk and the physical refresh.
- Move. Run, jog, lift weights, cycle, practise yoga, swim, climb, ski, hike, dance, garden, play, or even clean house like you mean it. Then pair your new physical state with one or more of the other do’s. You’ll probably find that some of your worry got worked out by your heart, lungs and muscles.
- Pump yourself up or calm yourself down with music. Find an anthem. Construct a “can do” playlist. Bang out your mental barriers on a piano or guitar…or soothe them. Sing. Famously, Thomas Jefferson would play a violin in the wee hours when stuck writing the Declaration of Independence. Music is well-recognized as an agent for freeing what’s bound within us.
- Embrace stage fright as a sign that you are expanding into growth territory. We can only know where we need tweaking if we move beyond our comfort zones. Otherwise, we’d remain in a state of ease and inertia.
- Read inspiring literature. Find the stories where everyday people DID the hard thing. Consult your core religious text for wisdom of the ages and heavenly guidance. Remember, through reading, that countless feet have walked the paths ahead of you and lived to tell the tale.
- Add up your assets…with gratitude. “I have a degree.” “I passed the gruelling bar exam.” “I’ve worked here through three leadership changes.” “I survived chemotherapy.” “I can think well on my feet.” “I listen well.” “I genuinely enjoy helping people.” Somehow the list of our blessings and abilities goes dark when we face intimidating circumstances. Bring them back into the light, and express thanks.
- See people as people. At the heart of most feelings of intimidation, inadequacy, insecurity and worry about situations involving people, there is a lurking mindset of objectifying others. This can be very difficult to own, but is a common trait of our human nature. When we see others as obstacles to our success, we consequently see ourselves as victims of them getting in the way. The truth is somewhere closer to “we are all people together, each with needs, objectives, and challenges of our own.” See the real person; see the reality of our own situation in relation to him or her. A great read for helping unpack this phenomenon is The Outward Mindset by The Arbinger Institute.
- Believe in your potential. It is undefined and, I believe, infinite. For many years, the mantra of success-making has been “believe in yourself.” It’s a small difference in semantics with huge implications in practice to emphasize believing in one’s potential. The self is. We can be right about what we can’t do and crushed by what we couldn’t accomplish. But, our potential is unbound and redefinable with every step we take toward our desire and goals and away from “easy” or “known.” Because of your potential, you may well have a spot in anyone’s “league” if you do the work to get there.
But DO NOT
- Do not let your past design your future. All of the best true hero stories involve overcoming. With very few exceptions, nothing you’ve done or haven’t done can keep you from a good desire.
- Do not step down from what you know is right.
- Do not harm others getting into anyone’s league. You will never be truly happy violating your basic sense of your own and others’ humanity.
- Do not waste time on blame. The truth deserves attention, yes. But blame? It’s a lost game from the face-off.
- Do not hesitate to lift as you rise. The good you do for others, even as you face truly challenging circumstances yourself, will form strong character, and a strong character is welcome in all the best places. Plus, you will invite good company along the way.
Taking It Personally
We tend to give our best advice away, and find it hard to apply in real life. That’s how this article came to be.
After a seven year hiatus due to work and personal circumstances, I attended a summit for facilitators using a particular approach I love. I walked into the convention hall on my own and felt a rush of “out of my league” syndrome. Hundreds of experienced practitioners had gathered to hone their skills alongside co-workers and bosses. I had taken care to dress professionally and honestly, walk from my hotel to shake off nerves, be on time, and smile over the beating of my heart… but I was still struggling. After a warm greeting at the registration table, I walked into the keynote auditorium and surveyed scores of tables filled with strangers I was assuming knew more, felt more confident, and were essentially different in some way from me.
I thought a quiet prayer for peace of mind and to find great company to sit with…which I did. The table I walked to included a person new to this work who needed assurances and a friend, a prospective colleague in an exciting writing project, and—shortly—the founder of the organization and his wife. Within minutes, we were all in a league of our own—the one we were building as people together, interested, sharing, and genuine.
What I rediscovered is the best way to level up—conquering one’s own fear enough to create a welcoming space for everyone to contribute what they came to offer.
For a one-page .pdf about seeing people as people, especially when making crucial decisions, click here.
You might also like to read the article I wrote about Do # 14. You’ll find it here at The Startup on Medium.com.