Michel de Montaigne once said that – and I heard Ariana Huffington describe it as one of her favorite quotes:
There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.
Less poetic but in my own words I noticed that 9 out of 10 scenarios I’d worry about would never happen.
In the meantime I had to face real life challenges and things that didn’t even cross my mind. I realized I’ll never get back the time I’m wasting and if I continue down the same path, I’ll be stuck in my own indecision. Why was I creating a parallel reality in my head, living an alternative life, instead of being right here ready to face reality and take advantage of the opportunities that come my way?
How often do you find yourself worrying about, really, just anything?
Do you also spend hours every week (if not every day) thinking about your life: what can happen next, what do you hope would happen, analyzing possible scenarios and imagining what you will then do? For years that was me. For some of the problems (many of them imaginary) I’d even create pros and cons lists or decision trees. Insane! As the lists kept piling up, the confusion in my head was only growing and if I needed to make a big decision, fear of change or facing consequences would take over. I realized all the time spent analyzing different situations was clearly a time wasted. The natural inclination to think things over didn’t work – not if you do it without a strategic approach.
It’s essential to have some sort of a plan, an idea of what we would we would like to accomplish. However dwelling too much on what might happen as the worst case scenario leads to feeling paralyzed and fear of making just about any big decision. Do you know the feeling of thinking: I don’t know what to do, why can’t I just wait and someone else will take that decision for me?
I think John Lennon was right when he said that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. Once you can accept it, you can finally feel free and relaxed to face whatever comes your way. In the meantime, you can steer your life in your direction with those few decisions you can actually influence. Whenever grappled with a difficult decision, try asking yourself:
What would I do if I wasn’t afraid? What’s the worst that can happen?
I’d highly recommend to write the answers down instead of only answering them in your head. It’s a very easy yet super effective strategy and you will notice that:
- Your priorities will become clear: now that you know what your dream scenario is, you can keep on dreaming, or … face your fear and put at least small actions into real life.
- You will gain the feeling of freedom and independence. Clearly define what’s the worst and the best scenario. Our worst fears are often those we can’t specify, and in this case it could be that the worst may be your current situation – which most likely isn’t too bad anyway. By acknowledging that you start being creative and open. If you don’t rationally describe what you are afraid of, your brain will take care of that part and over exaggerate the situation and its possible outcome.
The best decisions in my life were the ones that took me out of my control zone. For start, I challenge myself to raise my hand whenever I can and offer to take responsibility for things I may have limited experience doing – I know that I’ll figure them out once I’m given the job. This is something I learned form my male colleagues as I used to admire their courage. Now I see it was simply confidence that they will deliver, and if not, at least they’ve tried. If they can’t do it, who can? I now have the same approach.
I accepted a job abroad knowing very little about what I’ll have to do and leaving a man I just started dating (and was falling in love with) to try to maximize on this opportunity. More conservative of my friends thought I had prioritized my professional life over love. I felt it would be reckless to say ‘no’ to a job that could be a real game changer for me for someone who seemed to be amazing, yet as it often happens, first months are not always the best indication of who we are or how the relationship develops. I also thought I needed a man by my side who will support my dreams, and that if we were meant to stay together, we will find a way. Result? 2 years later we are still together (and he proved to be as good, or better, that I imagined), my salary increased at least threefold, and the experience I gained is priceless.
It was also a decision to end a relationship (or a couple of them) I knew wasn’t for me but was afraid of leaving. I don’t want to give any relationship advise here, but I meet so many wonderful women who feel stuck thinking should we still be together? If this happens too often, ask yourself if there is something you can do (or want to do), and if not, is that the fear of losing the time and emotions you had invested stopping you from taking that decision. We don’t usually think too much about leaving when we are with someone we love after all. Same holds true for our professional lives. If you wake up every morning dreading the day, maybe it’s time to look for an alternative.
All the best negotiations I had were a direct result of letting go of fear and asking myself that question.
Next time you feel like you hit the wall, ask yourself if you would act differently if you weren’t afraid.
This is already 50% of your success. Even if you decide to act small and take baby steps, it can improve your situation. I look at my life as a journey and as a comparison imagine a plane leaving New York for London. If it steers off-course even by a small percentage it may reach a different destination and go to Paris or Madrid instead. That’s why those baby steps truly matter.
By asking yourself: what’s the worst than can happen? you will see that it’s most likely a combination of getting a negative answer, being laughed at, feeling ashamed, stressed or humiliated. All very powerful feelings but only last a brief moment. They won’t matter at all once you get to where you dream of getting. The upside is giving yourself a chance to improve your situation and in most cases, being rewarded for a moment of bravery.
This also works for other aspects of your lives – like me and surfing. Wouldn’t have dared to do it otherwise!
I remember reading Suzy Welsh’s book “10-10-10: A Life-Transforming Idea” several years ago. She introduces a strategic approach to dealing with challenges where you struggle to make a decision that will make everyone involved happy. By asking yourself: how will my decision impact my life in 10 years, 10 months and 10 minutes you allow yourself to step back…and reflect without your emotions taking over.
Most of our decisions will make us feel uncomfortable in 10 minutes, but only a couple of them will stay with us for 10 months (or 10 years). The example that Suzy used and illustrated it well was the one of having an important meeting at work and her kid’s sports tournament. She ended up prioritizing her family as she knew her your boy wouldn’t forget she wasn’t there in 10 months while she could try to reschedule the work appointment.
Why women have a difficult time asking for more?
This is especially true for us, women. Our survival instincts and thousands of years of caring for family shaped our DNA so that our brains don’t naturally support unnecessary risks and only being proactive can change some of those habits. We often choose comfort and stability over a disturbing feeling of change. We create scenarios for a perfect life, however are paralyzed by indecision and fear of failure.
We are also afraid of being too bossy, demanding or unaccommodating. This is what an average woman feels and thinks about when she decides it’s time to negotiate because she is not paid accordingly, or less than her male colleagues.
You can see for yourself – once you start questioning status quo, you will see a broad spectrum of new possibilities, both in your mind and then relationships with others. If you want a good challenge, ask yourself to do one small thing every day that takes you out of your comfort zone. It can be as simple as being more assertive at work or at home. Saying ‘no’ to an additional project if you are struggling to keep your head above water; saying ‘yes’ to a new challenge and then figuring out how to do it. After a month (scientists have proven our brains need 21 days to develop a new habit) it will be a cup of tea, you will be puzzled as to why you didn’t give it a go before!
Suzy Welsh: 10-10-10: A Life-Transforming Idea