by Patty Azzarello
Recently, I keep finding reasons to think about being scared. Or more specifically, getting reminded that being scared is OK.
Successful people spend as much (or more) time being scared as they do feeling confident and comfortable.
The difference is that they do it anyway.
My worst moment…
Here is the story of what might be the worst moment in my career.
I was in my early 20’s and I was a sales engineer. My job was to demonstrate technical products during the sales process.
It was my first week on the job after being trained on one of the two products in our product line. The sales force was not supposed to schedule demos for me for the second (more sophisticated and specialized…”scarier”) product until I had a chance to get the training. So much for “supposed to”…
I found myself in a room of customers who demanded that I do a demo of the product I didn’t know. I told them that I could show them the product, but I wasn’t prepared to do a full demo. So I launched the product and they started firing questions at me. I must have said, “I don’t know, I’ll have to find out and get back to you” at least 30 times. It was humiliating.
Talk about uncomfortable. I don’t think I knew the answer to a single one of their questions. I didn’t even understand the questions. It was painful. I was used to being seen as smart and competent and prepared. I was SO embarrassed. Then it came…
One of the customers said to the sales person in a frustrated, angry tone. ” Why did you bring HER? She doesn’t know anything!”
You know what happened?
I didn’t die.
Yes, it was very painful, and beyond uncomfortable, but it didn’t kill me.
What it did do, was give me a list of 30 important questions customers have about this product.
The next day I sat down with the product manager and asked him to explain to me what those 30 questions meant, and how to demonstrate them in the product.
Within a week I was the second most competent (and in demand) sales engineer to demonstrate that product. By contrast, there were other sales engineers at the company who stayed scared to demo that product, so they never even tried. Their careers did not advance.
Scared is OK
That one experience allowed me to be scared for the rest of my career, but to also know it’s OK. I was genuinely scared every time I got a promotion. I was scared many times in big presentations, meetings or negotiations.
That man’s voice was in my head saying, why did you bring HER. She doesn’t know anything.
But that lesson allowed me to realize:
1. That you can be scared, screw up, even fail, and you will survive.
2. That failure-learning cycle is far more valuable than the safe, not-doing-it approach, where you learn and accomplish nothing.
3. Over time it get’s easier. If you force yourself to act when you are scared, every time it gets easier to act when you are scared.
In brief — do it scared.
Scared and Successful
Ultimately, I was able to be scared, and still perform really well most of the time. My way of working would be to push forward, be scared, and do it anyway.
I still cringe sometimes. I am not perfect. I forget things, and get thrown off sometimes. But now when that happens I always think about what I learn from the minor embarrassment and feedback. It makes me better next time, and forever after. I would not improve without some amount of trial and failure.
If you never put yourself out there, you never get the feedback, practice, insight, and ideas to tune what you are doing to be more successful. You just stay stuck.
And it’s also important to realize that if you mess up a few times in dozens or hundreds of outings, it has no impact whatsoever on peoples’ impression of you. Those moments just fade away as you replace them with the improved, excellent ones.
Fear and Competence
People who are not held back by fear have broken the link between fear and competence.
What I mean by this is that some people when they feel scared, have a tendency to think that is a sign that they are not worthy. They think…
If I am scared and I feel vulnerable, that must mean by definition that I am not good enough to be in this situation.
This is not how successful people think. Successful people break the link and say something instead like…
I feel scared and vulnerable, so it’s going to be harder than I expected to put myself out there. Damn, I guess I have to do it anyway.
It breaks my heart when I see gifted people hold themselves back because they are too nervous to step forward.
One woman in particular I am thinking of did some breakthrough medical research, but was not comfortable being the one to present it. Guess what happened.
The presenter claimed the credit and she got pushed aside. What should have been a breakthrough moment in her career turned into a setback.
The invisible risk
Staying in the background because it is more comfortable, does nothing. It adds no value, you don’t learn, and you fade into the background. In terms of being vulnerable, in reality you are much more vulnerable if you are invisible, than if you are out there.
Being out there and being imperfect, trying to move things forward, and committing to contribute is actually a much less risky way to behave in your career.
Leaders Step Forward
It’s not about being flashy or having a big personality. Leaders drive outcomes and then they communicate about them. Even the most humble, introspective, introverted leaders put themselves out there when they need to. And it is very powerful.
The power comes from showing that you are taking ownership for the outcome of the communication, not from the song and dance. Leaders step forward and show others that they care.
I saw a TED talk by Dr. Brene Brown about Vulnerability and Shame. I’ve included a link below, it’s really worth watching, but I wanted to point out a couple of things that really struck me on this topic of fear and success.
1. Everyone feels vulnerabilty and shame
Everyone. Not just some people. Not just most people. Everyone. If you are human you feel shame (unless you are a psychopath).
So there you have it. Vulnerable or Pshcyopath.
I found that very comforting. To think because I feel scared, I am not good enough, makes no sense – because everyone is in the same boat. Another reason to do it anyway.
2. There is no Creativity or Innovation without fear
There is no success without failure. Great ideas and big successes come from people who are willing try, fail, and keep going. Good ideas stem from bad ideas. Failure is necessary to progress.
Do it scared, and you might get someplace.
The words she uses, which I really like are “Daring Greatly”.
Here is the link to Dr. Brene Brown’s talk “Listening to Shame”.
Her research and her talk are about much more than these two points. It’s worth the time…
What about you?
When have you been scared or failed, built success out of it. Please leave your story in the comment box below.
Patty Azzarello is an executive, author, speaker and CEO-advisor. She works with executives where leadership and business challenges meet. Patty has held leadership roles in General Management, Marketing, Software Product Development and Sales, and has been successful in running large and small businesses. She writes at Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. You’ll find her on Twitter as @PattyAzzarello. Also, check out her new book Rise…
Successful-Blog is proud affiliate of