Before I started working with a professional coach, I let fear dictate my actions. When I had an idea, I’d first get excited by the outcome it would achieve if it worked the way I expected. Then, the What Ifs would set in.
What if it’s a dumb idea. What if it doesn’t work. What if I miss something obvious. What if I do a bad job. What if it hemorrhages money. What if it hurts our reputation. What if it hurts my reputation. What if I embarrass myself. What if I get fired.
As you can imagine, these fears had the potential to shut things down before I even began. Fear of failure is something I’ve struggled with throughout my life. After 40+ years, I’m tired of it.
Automattic, the company I work for, offers professional coaching as a benefit. At the end of 2020, I signed up and set a goal:
Shift how I’m influenced so that I’m motivated more by positive outcomes than by fear.
In my first coaching call, my coach used the term “design thinking” and described it as when you think in terms of possibilities. And I said yes! This is the way I want to think! I want to get excited about what is possible, the benefits of changes I want to make, how they will make the experience better for our customers and Happiness Engineers. In my regular life, I want to write and publish and travel and adventure. I don’t want to be held back by fear.
As I worked with my coach, I held on to fear. Fear helps me prevent those What Ifs from coming into fruition. But too much fear — too much attention to risk, too much attention to preemptively trying to plan for all the things that could go wrong — leads to not doing anything.
And this realization changed everything for me. How can we make positive change if we don’t act?
Each time I mentioned my fear and doubt to my coach, and got panicky about catastrophic consequences that could occur if I misstepped, she would ask, “Where’s the evidence?” Where’s the evidence that a mistake will lead to public embarrassment or job loss?
When I look for evidence, I see the opposite of my fears. In my blogging life, I see that posts I was most nervous about publishing are often the posts that most resonate with others. If I hadn’t published them, we would have missed out on that human connection.
In my work life, I see overwhelming evidence that Automattic, the company I work with, is okay with mistakes. Like, really truly okay. Every day I see evidence of lessons learned from things we break. “When we do this thing, it breaks this other thing. Now we know not to do that thing.” Or, “When we do this thing, it breaks this other thing. I don’t like how fragile this other thing is. Let’s strengthen it.” Or, “When we do this thing, it breaks this other thing. That gives me an idea that could be a good direction.”
Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Mistakes are welcomed because they mean you’re doing something. Mistakes are good because they connect us and move us forward.
When fear bubbles up for me now, I remind myself:
- Action with mistakes is better than inaction.
- Evidence shows the opposite of my fears. Where I work and in my life, mistakes don’t lead to punishment. They lead to progress.
- I have role models. I respect and admire people who try things and fail, then try again. Who push forward without or despite fear. They make mistakes. Then they own their mistakes, examine them, learn from them, and iterate.
Fear is still with me, of course. But after coaching, it is no longer the driver. Instead, when I think, “Look at the possibilities with this idea!”, I consult my fear to identify obstacles I’ll need to find a way through. And then I move forward.
I published a version of this on one of our internal blogs at work yesterday. I’ve always wanted to repurpose a piece of writing for two different audiences, but have never tried it before, so here I am, trying something new :). I am filled with gratitude for the coaching benefit Automattic offers and to my coach, Lauren LeMunyan, who coached me through this. Fear of failure has been a struggle for me forever. I feel better equipped to confront that fear now.