Don’t Give Fear a Leading Role In Your Career: 5 Tips For High-Achievers

Don’t Give Fear a Leading Role In Your Career: 5 Tips For High-Achievers


Fear is a biological imperative that is critical for your survival. It also kills careers.

Because of movies, we know that fear is an essential trigger that protects us from dangerous threats like:

  • Sharks (see “Jaws”)

  • Bears (see “Backcountry”)

  • Summer camp (see “Friday the 13th”)

  • Getting in between my mom and her Starbuck’s cake pop (see “Untitled documentary about one woman’s 75-year quest for the chocolatey-est chocolate”).

Because of science, we know that continuously operating from a place of fear is debilitating and exhausting. It stops you from making the moves that get you to the really good stuff in your career.

A little well-channeled fear can be a good thing. Sometimes, it awakens us to discomfort and causes enough unpleasantness to make a change. So, the goal is not to be fear-less. Instead, let’s talk about how to acknowledge, understand, and move through fear to create the career you want.

Go get your own cake pop and settle in. We’re about to scare the pants off of fear.


Fear Is a Construct. There Is No Spoon. (“The Matrix”)

While procrastinating researching this blog post, I’ve learned about the Amygdala, read about Plato's Cave, and watched “The Matrix.” I believe I speak for all scientists, philosophers, and filmmakers when I summarize it thusly: Fear is weird.

Fear is a feeling so strong that we experience in the now something that may or may not happen in the future. The physical and psychological effects are real, but the trigger often exists only in our minds. Fear is a construct of perception, past experience, and physical response that frequently has nothing to do with serious life or death threats.

Fear is not objective. One person’s nightmare—a huge presentation in front of senior management and a world without cake pops—is another person’s dream. It feels true to us, but it’s often not the truth.

Like I said. Fear is weird.


Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! (“The Wizard of Oz”)

Like so many powerful terms, “Fear” is vague and unwieldy. If we don’t name our fear, it permeates everything until it’s indistinguishable from the thing we fear.

Name the fear by playing What’s the Worst That Can Happen? I am the all-time champion of this game. Not so great at “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon”; really great at “3 degrees of Caroline dying penniless and alone under a bridge in Central Park.” (As bridges go, you could do worse, but still).

Your turn.


Put your worst-case-scenario career fears on paper. Get them out of your head, turn them over, study them. What stories are you telling yourself about them? What would your worst fears feel like if they were to come true?

The latter question is key because feelings rule our day-to-day and determine our actions. Let’s say you fear the feelings of chaos and upheaval you imagine will result from making a career change. Once you know they're behind the fear, you can make a plan to avoid or limit those feelings. You may not be able to control what happens, but you can control your thoughts and feelings about it.

Let’s go deeper into planning now.


Just Because Someone Stumbles and Loses Their Path, Doesn’t Mean They’re Lost Forever (“X Men: Days of Future Past”)

Now that you understand what’s behind your fear, let’s figure out how to address it or avoid it entirely.

Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor widely considered to be the founding father of positive psychology, suggests our ability to deal with setbacks is largely determined by three P's: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.

Let’s apply his framework to proactively plan how to manage your fear.


Imagine the step in your career you’re afraid to take, then do this:

  1. De-Personalize It: You are greater than the sum of your successes or failures. How can you separate the outcome from your self-worth?

  2. Limit Pervasiveness: The step you fear taking--however big--is but one area of your career, and your career is but one area of your life. How can you prevent destructive thoughts and feelings from spilling into other areas of your career or life?

  3. Reduce Permanence: Whether we’re frozen in the fear of taking action or feeling the fallout of the outcome, we sometimes get trapped in the falsehood that it will always be like this. How can you accept the thoughts and feelings surrounding your fear, yet trust that you will ultimately succeed?

What other ways can you plan for your worst-case-scenario fears?

If you want something, go get it. Period. (“The Pursuit of Happyness”)

Fear keeps you in your head.

You need to do the thing. It can be all at once, baby steps, or giant leaps. However you approach it, you need to experience the reality of doing it.

Want to raise your profile and have more influence? Start practicing. Nervous about interviews? Go on a bunch. Not sure about the new career you think you want? Take it for a test drive. Gain confidence by improving your competence.

Whether the result exceeds your expectations or is just as painful as you imagined, there is incredible power in having done it. You’ve moved forward and now have real world data instead of just your thoughts about what it could be.

There’s also a high likelihood that the outcome will surprise you in a good way because the fear drove you to do your absolute best.


You Have To Get Through Your Fear To See the Beauty On the Other Side  (“The Good Dinosaur”)

Instead of agonizing over the outcome, ask “What do I want to learn?” This question shifts you from trying to predict the future to savoring the experience.

Each experience provides an opportunity to learn and grow. Focusing on what you can learn gives you space to explore how you benefit from the experience regardless of how it turns out. You always win.

Approach your fear with curiosity, and reap the benefits.


Can a [Wo]man Still Be Brave If [S]he's Afraid? That’s the Only Time [She] Can Be Brave. (“Game of Thrones”, gender updates mine)


It’s important to acknowledge and accept your fears. That said, sometimes we need perspective. Zoom out a bit to look at what others have achieved and the bravery they exhibited to get there.

Think of your friends, your mom, your grandmother, your aunt. Now think of the strides women have made as a whole in the last 100 years. I bet you can think of more than a few women who’ve walked through some incredible fear. Channel them and draw from their courage.

Back to you. If you move through your own fear, what would it do for you? What impact might you make on your organization and the world? What kind of example would you set for the people you lead today and the leaders of tomorrow?


Fear Is Only As Deep As the Mind Allows (~Japanese Proverb. Not a movie)

In conclusion, fear is a normal, necessary, and important emotion. It’s also weird. It’s good for bears and sharks and possibly a dearth of cake pops. It's not so good for your career. Also, “The Matrix” is an excellent movie.

Designing a career you love can be really HARD. You probably need to conquer things you've never done before (and that most people never try).

It's not that successful people don't feel fear. They feel it, then do it anyway.

Take your fear as a sign that what you're about to do is IMPORTANT.

Recognize the power that exists on the other side of your fear, and go after it.

Where is fear holding you back? What action will you take today to walk through it? What’s the right way to spell “chocolatey-est”?

Scroll down to comment and share.

Headshot Web site.jpg

Author Bio: 

Before becoming a coach, Caroline spent 20 years in management consulting and financial services. She's made it her mission to help people grow, contribute, and get wherever they want to go.

Caroline wants women to recognize how much power they truly have to define their careers. The life and career you want really is possible once you have the roadmap. Take the first step by downloading her free guide.

She’s also a tennis fanatic, aspiring Minimalist, FIRE (Financial Independence and Retire Early) enthusiast, and Aloha Spirit seeker 🤙. She loves to share stories from her unconventional life and career focused on freedom, creativity, fun, health, family, and community. If she can do it, you can, too.