I had just put in my two weeks notice at my job and was informing my coworkers I was leaving. As I came around the corner of the cubicle, the grantwriter who sat across the hallway from me said those words to another coworker, shaking his head in admiration.
I’m very rarely stunned. But I was in that moment.
This man, whose personal and professional respect matters immensely to me, thought I was fearless by taking on new, bigger, more challenging work.
It’s not an adjective I’d apply to myself. I’m afraid of a lot of things: Snakes. Dying without saying important things to the important people in my life. My dogs dying. Snakes. Ok, so I’m mostly afraid of snakes and death. But fearless?
I work at a desk. My job is not dangerous. Being fearless in my work looks completely different than being fearless in a job where your safety is at risk. In some jobs, a healthy dose of fear is essential. Let me put that qualifier out there now.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I’m afraid of, career-wise. Snakes infesting my workplace ranks number one, of course, but only followed shortly by a fear of failure. It hit me that I’m afraid not of failing, but failing because I didn’t try very hard.
I’ve failed before. I finished the Twin Cities 10 Mile limping because of an IT band injury. It felt like there was a metal bar connecting my thigh and my calf, leaving my knee useless. I finished in tears (I cry like, twice a year, so this was a.big.deal.). I can look back on any number of reasons why I was injured at mile eight, but it wasn’t because I didn’t leave everything on the race course.
Some people will fail because of systematic inequities that make it damn near impossible for them to succeed. And yet people go out every day and face a world that tells them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they know their bootstraps are frayed to hell or non-existent. It takes courage to know the system is gamed against you and still go out there and try to get shit done. That, in my opinion, is fearless.
I know I’m good at my job. People tell me I do good work and keep giving me opportunities to work on bigger, more exciting projects. But every now and then, fear sneaks in. I procrastinate on something, putting it off until... maybe I don’t have to do it after all? I fall back on my strengths. I’ll email this person instead of call, because it’s easier to rearrange my words and thoughts and then press send, instead of having them tumble out of my mouth ineloquently. I mask my fear or work around it, avoiding outright confrontation with the thing I’m afraid of doing.
There are hard things in life and in work and in getting out of bed every morning. But honestly? My biggest fear is phoning it in and failing. Because at that point, it’s not a true test of what I’m capable of, but instead a test of what I was too lazy or scared to do. And knowing I didn’t leave everything out on the race course is the truly scary thing for me.
My coworker’s fearless comment remains the single greatest compliment I’ve ever received (well, overheard). Lately, when I shy away from doing the hard things or putting myself out on a limb, I think about being fearless. I think about being the person my old coworker thinks I am. And I think about how disappointed in myself I would be because I chose feeling comfortable over risking success. That, in and of itself, is enough.
What are you afraid of career-wise? What would it take to be fearless?