June 20, 2011

Fear is Fear Itself

So today's entry was going to be about vocal fillers (it was also going to be an audiocast, as I'm sure you've figured out) but since it's quarter-til tomorrow, and since I obviously am typing and not doing some sound recording magic, let's talk about fear.

(As an aside, my spellchecker is keyed to Spanish and it's driving me a little bananas. Forgive any typos; I am lacking the patience to properly spellcheck in this condition.)

I've found, more often than not, that I thrive under pressure. This is good; this is what, I daresay, recruiters are looking for, what companies (especially big single-digit firms -- big three, big four, whatever) seek. And yet, I think what people always forget to mention is the other side of it, the fear that can freeze and cloy and claw at you.

Mind, I've never frozen in an interview. I've stumbled, and I've certainly made some boo-boos, but never froze. I'm fortunate in that regard; I've known people who get the deer-in-the-headlights thing that just is all-consumingly bad.

I honestly don't have the remedy for that. It's something that requires therapy and concentrated work to overcome. It also becomes a very good story for your internet responses.

I will say this: I've always (well, often at any rate) used my fear to motivate me. I have to ask myself three major questions:

1. Why am I afraid?

This question is totally useless if it's an irrational fear. But, generally speaking, working to determine why you are afraid of something can be strangely illuminating. And this doesn't have to be a solo endeavor; find a close friend whom you trust and discuss this with them. Even if s/he cannot offer any real insight, your friendship with that person may strengthen thanks to your confidence.

That said, understanding the underlying reasons for your fear can help you overcome them, or at least face the source of your terror head-on.

For myself, I have a near-crippling fear of failure. It's had net positives in my life; it keeps me determined and I have a great deal of follow-through. If I set my mind to something, I can and will do so. But it also has other drawbacks: failure is part of the learning process, and failing (especially in a public way) can be extremely costly. I asked myself "Why?" on occasion over the years. I think the reason is twofold: (1) I like attention, and succeeding is positive attention, and (2) failure means that something was wrong -- a decision, an action, a choice. As someone who is careful and determined, realizing that you had a serious misstep can (and sometimes is) devastating.

2. What can I do about it?

Fear is only half the problem. Knowing why you fear is a step in the right direction. The next step is to ascertain how you can use the information you have from your introspection. Basically, we're making it "extrospection" which isn't really a word but sounds pretty cool.

Fear cannot rule your life; you can't let fear guide you. You can mitigate the occurrence of fears by choosing low-risk activities and maintaining a certain amount of self-determined security. But low-risk is also low-reward, and I firmly believe that we learn more about ourself when we challenge ourselves and push our personal boundaries. Doing those things requires risk.

For myself, fearing failure, and understanding that a part of that had to do with seeking attention meant that I needed to be ready to take risks in environments where I wasn't necessarily comfortable. So I started ceding the power in groups, and I began taking on project roles that weren't what I was necessarily accustomed to. In my interviews and job searches, I loosened up and broadened my focus to companies that I wouldn't have thought to look at before, in sectors I hadn't realized I would fit into. You've got to fail so that you can learn. I've gotten more rejection letters than acceptance ones; the boilerplate never stops hurting, but the mourning has gotten shorter.

3. Where do I go from here?

The most important question you can ask yourself is: where do I go from here? Because, at the end of the day, it's about continuous improvement, constant forward motion. That's kind of my motto in life, to be frank. Treat every experience -- good or bad -- as a learning experience.

I am quick to point out that not every experience is a teachable moment. That's not true and can be actively harmful, in my humble opinion. However, you should always be learning, from everything that you do. The best advice I got last summer in all of my networking was from a guy who started at Kohl's and ended up at McKinsey: take a job with your eyes on the next job. Learn as much as you can, put that learning on your resume, and be prepared to always be learning.

For myself, every interview (and every rejection letter) has been a reflection and learning experience. The point of failure -- and, by extension, fear -- is to indicate to us that something is awry. Whether it's the decisions we've made or the paths that we've taken, figurative and literal, the experiences in my life that have elicited these emotions have made me a better person and a better candidate for the company that I will eventually join. The endless optimism is cloying, and my parents' peppy words feel stifling, and the reassurances may eventually feel empty, but the moments between - that is where the value is added.

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