By Jack J. Kelly
The only people who say that they are not afraid and anxious at times are either liars or too stupid to know enough to be afraid, anxious, and worried.
It’s completely normal to have a healthy dose of discomfort and worry. These so-called negative traits can be useful to push us to propel forward. When we are too happy, we tend to get comfortable and complacent. It is easy to then stagnate. As we seek to forge forward, that’s when the butterflies in the stomach and the similar weird internal feeling and thoughts start popping up. When this happens, you reach a fork in the road; either you get scared off from pursuing that great new job (or starting a business, pivoting into a new career, going back to school) or you face your fears and bravely move forward.
If you are at an inflection point in your life, it could be going after a new job, buying a home, getting married, or any other big decision, here are some ways to fight back against the fear, or at least manage or minimize its deleterious impact, so that you are not stopped from reaching your goals.
1. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Apply a little metrics to the decision-making process. Let’ say that you have been contacted by a recruiter for a new job. You’re relatively happy where you are, but the new position sounds interesting, challenging, offers more money, and is the next logical step in your career.
The prospect of making an excuse to your boss and sneaking out of the office in a brand new suit, the chance of being rejected, the thought of having to start all over again, and other reasonable concerns flood your mind. The furious flow of worries paralyzes your ability to decide what to do. The path of least resistance is to just do nothing and remain where you are, but in your heart, you know that this may be the ticket to jump-starting your career to the next level.
Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” The best thing that could happen is that you receive a great monetary offer- substantially more than you are earning now, plus a higher title, enhanced responsibilities, heightened visibility within the company, access to executive management, clear path to move forward, and the ability to substantially monetize this position, if you were to move somewhere else several years later.
The downside is that you don’t do well in the interview and you still have your old job. That’s not so bad. In the meantime, you met with a number of people with whom you could network with in the future, learned about what your competitors are doing, and feel good about yourself for taking a chance. I know what you are thinking, “Hey, Jack, what if someone at the firm knows my boss and they call him and I lose my job because he found out I’m interviewing?!” That’s a reasonable question. In over 20 years of recruiting, I have never had a person lose their job because someone blew-up their spot. That’s not to say it’s because I’m such a great and awesome recruiter (which I happen to be). Rather, it’s due to our society’s propensity toward litigation. Think of it being you. Would you tell someone’s boss that their employee was actively looking? Most likely not, since you know that if the person gets fired, she’ll figure out who was the rat and sue you. Who would take that kind of risk?
When you really analyze the situation, the upside far exceeds any downside, so it is perfectly reasonable to pursue this opportunity.
2. Mentally prepare and have a game plan if the worst case scenario happens.
Okay, I was wrong and some a$$hole weasel at the company you interviewed with squealed on you and told your boss that you’ve been interviewing. Who knows why people do such crappy things, but it happened. Your boss calls you into a meeting, looks at you sternly with dagger eyes- all seriously and surly, as if he ate something bad for lunch. It’s hard to take him too seriously, as you’ve noticed from his LinkedIn profile that the guy jumps ship about every three years for a new job. Also, his credibility has diminished as you are mesmerized, in a bad way, over his hideous taste in clothes, including a 90’s- era too-wide, amoeba-patterned tie, bad comb-over hairdo, and suit jacket and pants that are two sizes too small.
You allow him to play the part of aggrieved victim, listen halfheartedly to his lecture, and realize that you were right to interview, even though it’s come to this awkward situation.
Take a few deep breaths and slowly and politely explain your reasoning and rationale without any recriminations or guilt in your voice. “I appreciate your feelings. The interview had nothing to do with you, the company, or the job. I am very happy here and enjoy my work. A recruiter called me out of the blue about a new position. I have not been looking for a job nor have I been sending out my resume. The recruiter informed me that the other company heard about me- due to my fine reputation- and wanted to meet with me. I thought it was reasonable to have a simple conversation. This did not go further than a conversation (you don’t have to mention the part that they elected not to bring you back). I learned a good deal about what they are doing and we could institute some of their techniques.” Now, you can go on the offensive. “Since we are talking openly and honestly, which I appreciate about you, I was hoping we could have a discussion of how I can take on new responsibilities and challenges.”
I recognize that I am making this sound easy. With confidence and a strong mindset, you can prepare for the worst case scenario and actually turn a bad situation into your advantage.
3. Push away emotion-based responses and look at things with an icy objectivity
As much as we would like to think of ourselves as advanced, we are still primitive prisoners of our emotions. When it comes to embarking on new ventures outside of our comfort zone, we lose reason and default to emotions. For instance, a candidate’s spouse is from the Midwest and he is from Long Island. They are a newly married couple and she would like to be closer to her parents, family, and friends. They met at college in the Midwest. The candidate is comfortable with the area and his family is dispersed around the country.
After a series of phone, video, and in-person interviews, a substantial offer is extended. It’s with a more prestigious company than he is currently with. The pay is considerably better, especially considering the lower cost of living and the job affords him the rare chance to get involved with work that he’d love to learn. Rationally, it all lines up perfectly. Then the anxieties come into play. “It’s a big move to go across country. All of our friends are in New York. The culture is so different. Do I want to be in a suburb driving to work instead of living in the heart of Manhattan? What moving company should we call? Do they have knishes? Do we have to buy new winter coats? Will our kids need to play hockey?”
It’s obvious that they are making up excuses and objections out of fear to make the big decision. The hard facts about the job and family available to support the burgeoning family are clear. The reasons to stay, while worthwhile to think about, are based out of being scared to pursue what they really both want to do. In my experience, I’ve noticed it’s easier to choose the path of least resistance. It’s easier just to do nothing, keep the status quo, and not face a new and exciting adventure. How many times have you kicked yourself for ignoring all the hard facts and yielded to the emotions of fear? Wouldn’t you prefer to live a life without succumbing to all the worries and doubts?
Admittedly, it is hard to push forward with all the worries holding you back; however, to succeed, you must look at things coolly and rationally and do what you know you need to do, even if you’re scared out of your mind.
4. Consider the law of averages
The law of averages refers to the probability of a specific event happening. As an Executive Recruiter, I subscribe to the theory of the law of averages. If we are recruiting for a position, it is important to make a large number of phone calls, send many messages to prospective candidates on LinkedIn, and email potential applicants. The more people I get in touch with, the odds are greater that someone will be interested. The fewer times I try to call candidates for a job, the odds are lower that I will find someone appropriate for the position. As it pertains to career-related decision-making, you should calculate the odds of success versus failure.
While we are afraid of going on an airplane because of a possible crash, the odds are greater that you will slip and fall in the shower or get into a car accident. View whatever fear-inducing endeavor that you are contemplating along with a factoring of the odds. This is similar to thinking of what is the worst-case scenario. The difference, instead of becoming anxious about a decision to act, think of the probabilities of success versus failure.
For example, I recall that my first experience with recruiting and career advice was with my dad when I was a late teen or in my early 20’s. He was a teacher for many years and always harbored ambitions to leave and go into business. His idea was to sell real estate after school hours, in the summer and weekends. He would then look for bargains and add investing in real estate to his plan. Since teachers didn’t make much money in the 70’s and 80’s, he took a safer route and worked part-time at night and summers in the schools. He never pursued the business idea.
Since this dream was put aside, he decided to improve his situation within the New York public school system where he worked. He went to Graduate School, as teachers needed additional credits to become a Vice Principal or Principal. He quickly became a high school Assistant Vice Principal at the school he taught at. He became comfortable and content.
A Principal role opened up at another high school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York. My dad was worried about taking on this new challenge, especially since it was a vocational school, teaching kids to work on trains- as opposed to a traditional high school. He was worried about failing, getting in over his head, going outside of his comfort zone, and not having a principal to shield him from angry parents, disaffected students, and all the problems that arise in an inner city school. He was soliciting advice from everyone, including, after exhausting all other options, me-his dopey son.
We ran through all the possibilities, both pros and cons, looked at the upside and the downside. In particular, this position was hard for the school system to fill because it was in a rough neighborhood and had a bad and dangerous reputation. Since he was only an Assistant Vice Principal for a short while, we discussed the odds of getting another principal position. They were hard to come by and there was an overabundance of seasoned people available for jobs at good schools. The odds were that if another position opened at a quality school, he wouldn’t get it at this time in his career. Given that there was little-to-no competition for this role, the law of averages indicated that this exact situation would not happen any time soon – and he was not getting any younger. Despite the worries, fear, and anxiety, he accepted the position. It was the best decision he made.
He loved the job. He wasn’t really an academic, so he loved the vocational nature of the school. He advertised to the community that the kids could get a high school degree and graduate to a union job working for New York City Transit. Parents pushed for their kids to go there and the school’s reputation turned around overnight. He looked back on that time as his greatest career achievement. Without taking a chance, and if he succumbed to his fear of failure, it never would have happened. The downside was that my brother and I had to constantly hear his stories about how he turned the school around.
5. Place stop-loss orders on your worries
For those who work on Wall Street, you may be familiar with the term “stop-loss order.” For everyone else, this is a trading strategy in which you can put in a sell order for a security that gets automatically executed if it falls in value to a predetermined level. Let’s say that you are buying shares of the retailer Target, but you worried about some event that could knock the price down substantially, such as Amazon buying Target’s rival Kohl’s. If Amazon buys Kohl’s, it is conceivable that Target stock could tank, as who wants to own a company that is in direct conflict with Amazon, which has been destroying all competitors in its way? As life works, this would happen when you were busy and unaware. The stock could be cut in half and you wouldn’t know until it’s too late. The stop-loss would execute the order automatically and you wouldn’t have to worry.
You could place a stop-loss order with your actions. Do you want to start a new side-hustle business while working? Cut down the worries and anxiety by telling yourself that if it doesn’t start taking off at a predetermined time, you will stop the business and try something else. People may say that you should never plan for failure and there shouldn’t be a plan-B. Maybe they are right, however, I believe that it is comforting during difficult times to know that you are being brave to take the chance of doing something, but being reasonable that if it doesn’t work out by a certain time period, you won’t be heartbroken. Cut your losses, learn something from the endeavor, and move forward with something else.
I’m not going to pretend that these are all the answers to combating fear and anxiety when trying something new, but it’s a good starting point.