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The Sum of All Fears = Stunted Growth

This post is one of the first in a new series that I call “Soft Skills for Hard Time; How to be Your Best When the Economy is a Mess”.  My goal is to get you to appreciate that your security comes from you and you can increase your security and value to the marketplace by investing in your soft skills.

One thing that can shut many of us down or prevent us from reaching our goals is fear.  When I talk to people about the goals and aspirations they have for their lives, I often hear rationalization about why they can or cannot do specific things.  I can tell that many times people are just afraid.


I watched the first Star Wars movie over the holidays.  You may recall the part when Luke Skywalker found out that his family had been killed.  In the movie, he didn’t let that news shut him down, even though that would have been easy.  It would have been easy for him to think that because his family had been killed, that he was at risk.  Instead of hiding out somewhere in fear, he pushed through his fear and went on to become a star fighter and Jedi Knight.

Looking back on my career, I realize that most of my growth took place when I was afraid.  I can recall going in to work and being afraid of failing.  Or being afraid that I would not know what I was doing or that others would realize that I didn’t know what I was doing.  These were the times when I grew the most in terms of my experience and development.

When I was in high school, my best friend’s name was Wes.  Wes was the class president.  He was funny, popular, and he got along with everyone.  I remember every year that he did something that I thought was crazy – he was a volunteer cheerleader for the (girls) powderpuff football game.  The powderpuff cheerleaders would dress up with wigs and makeup and go through some pretty silly cheers.  I thought it was crazy and a bit dangerous to dress up and make a fool of himself, but Wes seemed to enjoy it.  He used to ask me to join him but I never dared to push through my fear and take the risk.

Fast forward to my first job out of college as a young engineer at IBM in 1985.  I remember that there was another engineer named Jeff that had been hired about a year before me.  He was considered the golden boy and in his first year he had really impressed our management team.  I recall that as  assignments were doled out, he jumped at all the new ones and then he quickly succeeded with them.  In contrast to this, I never volunteered for new assignments.  Like my experience with the cheerleading, I wasn’t anxious to jump in – frankly I was afraid.

My fear cost me.  I was at IBM nearly 10 years.  During that time, my career progressed, but not as fast as I would have liked.  My fear held me back from taking risks and that slowed my progress.  Looking back, the best thing I did at IBM was when I quit in 1993.

Now that I am an independent consultant, I recognize I have no choice but to push through my fear and take risks.  I recently volunteered to take on six client projects that were in trouble.  I didn’t really know the domain, nor did I fully appreciate how badly these projects were failing.  And yes I was afraid.  But I now know that I need to be willing to take on risks if I am going to add value to my clients.  I have also learned that most of the fear I feel is unwarranted.

If you were to be completely honest right now, I believe that many of you could identify at least one goal or aspiration that you are not pursuing because of fear.  I want you to encourage you to make friends with fear; to understand what it is that makes you afraid, and to evaluate the cost of that fear on your life.

Courage is not the absence of fear, it is when we choose to act in spite of the fear that we feel.  If you want to grow, you have to push through fear and take some risks.

Action Steps:

  1. Look back over the last 5 years of your life and identify when you took a risk.  What was the result?  What did you learn?
  2. What is the cost in your life right now of your fear?  What could you achieve by pushing through your fear?



This Post Has One Comment

  1. mathew johnson

    So in this case your soft skill improvements are getting better and taking risks and assessing those risks in a clear-eyed way?
    How do you differentiate between risks that you shouldn’t take and risks that you should, because they are ultimately more tractable than they first appear?

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