Right now, there’s only one thing holding you back from success at work. And that’s fear. Not of ghosts or clowns or spiders, but of messing up and falling flat on your face.
Yes, that’s scary. But what’s even scarier is not trying—because that means you’re not going to learn or grow. And a career without either of those two things isn’t really a career; it’s just a series of uneventful jobs.
Look at Mark Zuckerberg or Thomas Edison or any of the other insanely successful people who, along with their accomplishments, also have a solid list of personal flops. But they pushed through those to become the people they are today. (Read: legends.)
Regardless of what you do for a living or where you are on the ladder, here’s some advice on how you can face your own fears—and come out stronger on the other side.
1. Get Real With Yourself
Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.
Whether you worry about looking bad, horning in on someone’s territory, saying something that hurts a colleague’s feelings or—the big kahuna—losing your job, it’s important to try to look at the situation honestly and, if possible, objectively. Know that everyone gets scared at some point. Think of the worst possible outcome. Once you let your mind go there (and realize it’s not imminent death), the risk doesn’t seem as great as you thought it did.
That worked for entrepreneur Susannah Ludwig when she was building Portraits That Move, a company that creates mini-documentary films about kids for their families. The process is an expensive one—however, she was hesitant to ask for the appropriate compensation for the work because she didn’t want to appear greedy and lose new clients. But, once she was brutally honest with herself about the situation and how much she deserved for her work, she shifted her strategy to focus on clients who could afford the services. That’s when her business took off.
2. Calculate the Price of Inaction
You can never get an ‘A’ if you’re afraid of getting an ‘F.’
Always operating outside his comfort zone, Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson is the poster boy for risk-taking. A great example: While traveling quite a bit around his record label, Branson got fed up flying on other people’s airlines—the service, the limited comfort, the lack of convenience—and decided to set up his own service, despite having no experience in that arena.
Sure, there were bumps and bruises along the way, including his first bank pulling out and giving him less than 48 hours to find alternate funding. But, Branson hit the phones, lobbying industry contacts and calling in favors, locking in other financial support, and taking a giant leap to become the major airline player he is today.
3. Build and Flex Your “Brave” Muscle
I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.
This is what I call a “brave muscle.” Like any other muscle, you need to actively work to improve it. One way to do that is to take on an extracurricular activity that’ll help you conquer something that scares you. Afraid to speak up in meetings for fear of saying something wrong? Sign up for an improv class or force yourself to do karaoke.
Personally, I recently started playing the piano again, and my perfectly imperfect rendition of “Für Elise” has helped me get much more comfortable with mistakes on a smaller, lower stakes scale.
4. Fake it ’Til You Make It
I learned early on as an actor that confidence can be faked, and it’s not always a terrible thing to do. A lot of times if people feel you’re confident, then they’re confident.
According to CreditDonkey, public speaking scares 75% of people to some degree. It even hits A-list celebrities like Harrison Ford. Ford is on the record as having a crushing fear of speaking in front of groups, experiencing “a mixed bag of terror and anxiety” when faced with the prospect of doing it. It’s so bad that even when the character he is playing must make a speech, he experiences the same feelings.
Don’t let those butterflies get the better of you. If you act like you know what you’re doing, people will assume you do. For example, if you walk to the podium with your head held high and your back straight, people will think you’re confident in your abilities and treat you accordingly.
5. Visualize Success, Instead of Failure
I would visualize things coming to me. It would just make me feel better. Visualization works if you work hard. Thats the thing. You can’t just visualize and go eat a sandwich.
As corny as it sounds, visualizing yourself succeeding can be surprisingly useful in pushing through. Carrey famously wrote himself a $10 million dollar check years before his success.
To get in the right frame of mind, find a quiet spot, close your eyes, and inhale deeply. Think of the situation stressing you out and play it like a movie in your mind. Imagine yourself there—how it sounds, smells, looks. See yourself saying the right things and facing down any challenges that arise.
Remember: You’re the hero in this story—so you should picture yourself successfully navigating the scenario. Walk through the scene several times, practicing what you would say or do. After a few more deep breaths, you’ll feel more ready to do it in real life.
6. Live Like You Just Hit Rock Bottom
Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.
Consider ultra-entrepreneur and author Peter Shankman. He was one of 300 people let go during massive AOL layoffs years ago. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he focused on creating opportunity.
With the movie Titanic slated for release, he took the rest of the money he had and made 500 printed t-shirts that said, “It sank. Get over it.” If he didn’t sell those shirts, he was going to be homeless. The upshot: He sold the 500 shirts in six hours—then called USA Today to give them the story. He sold 10,000 more shirts online over the next two months and ultimately racked up $100K.
7. Fail Forward
The very first company I started failed with a great bang. The second one failed a little bit less, but still failed. The third one, you know, proper failed, but it was kind of okay. I recovered quickly. Number four almost didn’t fail. It still didn’t really feel great, but it did okay. Number five was PayPal.
Embracing and learning from failure is the point of FailCon, a conference launched in 2009 that brings together CEOs from startups big and small to regale listeners about missteps, misunderstandings, and general mismanagement. The hope? Learn from the bad; identify the good. Focus on what’s succeeded and learn from what hasn’t. You can do the same and then use that knowledge to stay strong and lay the groundwork for future success. And remember that just because you failed, doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
As Eleanor Roosevelt always said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Now, that’s not so scary after all, is it?