I Choose Risk: Not Letting Fear Diminish Your Potential

I was the first one in the office that day. It was quiet. Usually these kinds of mornings were the most productive, but this particular morning I found myself locked in the restroom, unable to breathe, slammed by a tidal wave of dread. My throat was tight, my heart was racing, and my nerves were firing. It felt like my entire body was responding to an imminent danger, and yet, there was no perceivable threat. With the exception of some well-curated mid-century furniture, I was completely alone. I realized what was happening- I was having a panic attack. As I sat there quietly, head in hands, I soon arrived at the realization that I needed to quit my job.

. . .

I had been in the same client facing position in the same industry for years and promotion opportunities had long since dried up. I was no longer excited or challenged by my work and I was carrying some heavy-duty emotional labour. Essentially, I was miserable. Looking back, I don’t know how I was able to maintain myself on the outside each day, when on the inside I was slowly falling apart. This disconnect between how I felt and what I expressed each day, the emotional dissonance, wreaked havoc on my self-confidence, my job satisfaction and devalued my work.

As I reflect back, I now realize that I felt like I had no options.  There was no clear direction or purpose and I felt isolated in my efforts. Working in this way had destroyed any vision of personal and professional growth for myself, and it resulted in a fixed mindset. I needed to move on, but the thought of stepping off the ledge into that cold dark pool of the unknown was debilitating.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

American Psychologist and Author, Susan Jeffers, said it best, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” But first you have to understand your fear in order to conquer it. So, what was I so afraid of?

  • Fear of change. Change can be scary, because it involves risk and uncertainty. Many of us are hard-wired to resist these things and so we stick to the behaviours and patterns that are familiar and comfortable. If nothing changes, then we know what to expect and what the outcome will be. Even if that familiar outcome is soul sucking.
  • Fear of success. With success comes change and accountability. If you fail, you can safely slink go back to your comfort zone. But with success, that’s uncharted territory, with an endless stream of new experiences, new people and new expectations. It’s a place of total exposure and vulnerability.
  • Fear of inability. Sticking your neck out and applying for new positions requires belief in your abilities. My self-confidence was levelled, and I’d been out of the game so long, I was afraid my abilities wouldn’t hold up or worse yet, I was unhireable!

My fears weren’t unique. As it turns out, these are all common fears associated with changing careers. Despite the comfort in knowing this, there was still a massive hurdle between recognizing the fear and finding the courage to take the leap.

Around this time, a job opportunity came my way. I was offered a short-term contract, in an unfamiliar industry and in a completely different role. The universe certainly has a sense of humour, doesn’t it? As if to say, “Hey, here’s a path to something different and you need to decide RIGHT NOW” while pushing me closer to that ledge.

So, what is risk anyway?

Risk can be defined in many different ways depending on the context. But what all definitions have in common, is the understanding that risk has two attributes; uncertainty and loss. Essentially, risk is the potential outcome of a decision or action that is unknown and could have unwanted consequences or costs.

So, when we assess risk, it’s that potential for an unwanted outcome that holds us back. There’s a lot at stake when taking a risk and it would be reckless not to consider the consequences. I looked at the possible outcomes and really considered the implications before I jumped.

Sure, if things went south, I’d be out of a job, under financial stress and no doubt, my confidence would take another hit. But weighing the outcome of not taking the leap felt like a far greater risk. I had been playing it safe for years and it was robbing me of new experiences, personal growth and the potential for greatness. Living my life this way wasn’t working and I wasn’t able to sustain the energy needed to mask how I felt, as my panic attack made abundantly clear. It was time to make a change.

True courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to proceed in spite of it

The above quote, from To Kill a Mockingbird, has helped guide my thinking about moving through fear. Part of taking risks is finding the courage to push past fear and take action. When I weighed my options and made the decision to quit my job, I recognized that part of the hold-up was the fear factor. Defining those fears offered me some clarity when it came to challenging them, and truly reflecting on the pros and cons of the risk at hand.

This is where courage comes in. Courage is all about taking action and the willingness to move forward regardless of risk, doubt and fear. It’s what moves you through the unknown, where self-belief and confidence develop from the experience of taking that action in spite of fear. I didn’t need to be confident to jump, I needed to have the courage.

How do you find and harness the courage needed to take those big risks? What are the mindset pieces needed to jump?

  • Understanding what’s at stake.
    Earlier I touched on the idea that we tend to focus on the worst possible outcome, including the super terrible fantasy ones, when taking risk. We fear what we don’t know. The thing about fear is it usually shows up when something important is at stake. So, it’s essential to consider the potential realistic consequences if you don’t succeed. Can these consequences be managed? If so, how? Take back some level of control in the face of risk by preparing for the things you can.
  • Having an aspirational Vision.
    Facing the unknown made me consider all the ‘what ifs’. I had considered the worst possibilities, but what if this actually goes well?  It was time to think about the big picture. What’s my vision? I’m a creative person and knew that was central to my aspirational goal for my career; I wanted to make an impact with the work that I did. Part of developing an aspirational vision is identifying and challenging the barriers and limitations we think are in the way. Certainly, no easy task, but once challenged and tested, we’re able to set goals and work towards the future we envision.
  • Belief in your abilities and skills.
    A clearer picture of the future I wanted was coming into view and I started to identify what was in my way. It was time to take stock of what I could bring to the table. What are the abilities, skills and traits I have that align with the future I want? Belief in your abilities and trusting that you have the skills needed to land after taking a risk makes a huge difference in deciding to take the plunge. As does recognizing behaviours and attitudes you have that are blocking the path to the future you want.

When deciding whether to drive forward into the unknown, figure out what’s at stake and crush your fears by identifying ways to control possible outcomes. Determine what your vision is and what’s in your way of getting there. Finally, take an honest look at your abilities and see if they align with your vision. Things become a lot clearer with this type of thinking and fear will be less involved in your decision making.

I’m happy to say I took the risk, I now find myself in those uncharted waters. Unsurprisingly, the fear doesn’t go away, I’m still working through many of the same feelings. The difference is, I recognize the fear and discomfort as an opportunity for growth and I lean in.