If You Feel Like You’re Scared, You Are Probably Making Progress

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Scared is OK

Lately I have found myself telling a lot of people that it’s OK to be scared.

This often comes up when someone is considering delivering a big presentation, taking on a new project, or going for a promotion, or even just speaking up in meetings.

If they feel scared, they have a tendency to think, “I’m not qualified … A qualified person wouldn’t be scared.”

This is simply not true.

Everyone gets scared. It’s OK to be scared.

What’s not OK is if every time you feel scared, you don’t move forward. Then you get stuck.

The reality is: 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” — 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.

What I learned from being scared

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!

Mega-cringe. I was beyond embarrassed, and crumbling on the inside. You know what happened?

I didn’t die That ended up being a big a-ha for me.

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Yes, it was very painful, and beyond uncomfortable, but I didn’t die.

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 moves you forward

That one experience gave me permission to be scared throughout the rest of my career, but to also know it’s OK.

This is the truth: I was genuinely scared every time I got a promotion. I was scared many times in big presentations, meetings or negotiations.

That customer’s voice from long ago can still work its way into head saying, why did you bring HER? She doesn’t know anything.

But that lesson allowed me to realize:

  • That you can be scared, screw up, even fail, and you will survive.
  • That scared-try-failure-learning cycle is far more valuable than the safer-feeling, opt-out approach, where you learn and accomplish nothing.
  • 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.
  • You get better and more confident at everything you do, so you are actually scared less often.

The invisible risk

It breaks my heart when I see gifted people hold themselves back because they are too nervous to step forward.

Staying in the background because it is more comfortable, means you fade into the background. In reality, that is worth being scared about because you are much more vulnerable if you are invisible, than if you are known and respected.

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.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .