Is Fear Driving Your Career Growth?

by L

Building Your Career: Based on Fear?

I found that I gained confidence and credibility in my job once I was no longer afraid of being fired. This fear had stayed with me for the first 10 years of my career (and I had been fired more than once!). I like to think that I can see the fear behind others’ business developments efforts, perhaps in their going to as many events as possible, or over-billing for tiny tasks, or in the slightly desperate air that comes from using someone’s name 30 times in a half-hour conversation.

Totebaggers, do you feel that your career-building efforts, whether marketing, networking, or doing your job tasks as well as possible (or for some of us, as well as possible based on unit of effort) are based on fear? Or is what you do to further yourself in your career based on personal pride, type-A outdoing yourself or others, or, as the book says, “love”?


55 thoughts on “Is Fear Driving Your Career Growth?

  1. Looking back, I would say in more than 25 years of professional work experience, I have only had two times that I was afraid of being fired. Once was due to a huge organization-wide reorganization that clearly targeted reductions in my deparmtment, at the same time I found out child #1 was on the way, and I was the one providing the family health insurance. The other was due to a boss who had a pattern of targeting individuals, and even though it is not “legal” was using my FMLA time off to care for a family member as a time to increase my workload to a level that was not doable within the work hours I had available.

    Both situations prompted me to find other jobs, which I found relatively quickly, that were better in multiple ways. However, during those periods of fear, while I put more effort into my work, I was so worried, it was often suffered from all that second guessing.

    The times that I have felt the most confident and supported for risk taking, are the times I have done my best work and received the most rewards (financial and recognition) for it.

  2. I think 95% of all my life decisions have been made from fear. I come from an extremely depressed, fearful family. My husband is always mildly depressed and fearful too. We tend to spiral in on each other until I’m at the point where I’m about to buy a bunch of survivalist food from Costco and a big gun and sit in the basement and wait to die. It’s a huge mercy that I live in Denver where there’s so much sunshine. I can go outside and slowly start to breathe again.

  3. A lot of the career stuff comes from love, or from wanting to be good at what I do. Some of it comes from wanting to be well placed for a better opportunity, should one come along. At this stage I’m not doing much out of fear. That said, I used to be afraid to do *less* which is probably similar. I spent a while talking myself into allowing part time to really be part time to make that work. A lot of “What’s the worst that could happen? Is that really likely? What’s the evidence that the worst outcome is the one that’ll really happen? What else seems likely? Is there something I can do to mitigate the risk of (horrible thing) while allowing myself to drop (thing I no longer want to do)?” I’ve experimented with doing less and less, and that’s helped.

  4. I definitely have felt a shift in this since I got laid off 10 years ago. It was a life-changing experience, but not in the way that I expected. It made me feel much less scared of getting fired because I knew that it really wasn’t that bad – this too shall pass, I will come out on the other side. I remember once being in a training class and someone stood up & said that security wasn’t the most important thing to him in a job because he’d lived through layoffs and job losses before. At the time I was incredulous – as were most people in the room because at this particular company that was not the culture. But now I completely see where he was coming from – a job is a job, and this too shall pass.

    I wonder if this will change again as I get older and finding a new job will be even more difficult due to experience/level attained and age discrimination. Being in my late 30’s, it not part of my current set of worries. I have enough experience to be marketable, but I’m not so old that no one will want to hire me (I hope).

  5. I still have imposter syndrome, so the fear that drives me is based on not feeling I belong, or I don’t deserve my job. At my last evaluation, I was asked to get to know our committee members better and understand their positions better through contact outside meetings. I know this is going to be hard. I feel my questions will be perceived unintelligent. Or something else. Just general fear and imposter syndrome. So yes. I need to move past this to improve my career. The better question is will I be able to.

    If I can move past this, I’d like to think my moves will then be driven by love of my job. Because I really do love my job.

  6. The biggest fear-based decision was to work full-time and be a mom. Given my career choice, stepping out of the work force and then back in would have been difficult, not to mention the pay cut getting back in would have required. Added on that was my parents warnings to always be able to support yourself and your family. Maybe this is a self-fulfilling thing, but I was very thankful when the recession took his job, that I was not trying to re-enter at that time.

  7. So one of the many reasons I love DH is that he has said, when I needed to hear it, that if I want to quit, completely or partly, I can. We’d have to move, downsize, etc. but so be it. C’est la vie. Knowing I have that option – even as the primary breadwinner – gives me great comfort.

  8. “It’s a huge mercy that I live in Denver where there’s so much sunshine.”

    Funny, I thought you were going to say that it’s a huge mercy that you live in Denver, where everyone else has a big gun and a basement full of Costco food, too. :-)

    I have been way too similar to this my whole life. And, of course, confirmation bias has me taking all the wrong lessons — our trip through miscarriages and job losses still catches me thinking “can’t trust anything, never safe,” where an objective view would say, “but we got through it and now have two kids we wouldn’t trade for the world and two jobs that we really enjoy and a great house where I wanted to live.” I have had to learn to consciously re-frame those things in my own head (which usually goes something like, “Laura, get your head out of your own [umm, navel] and stop being such an ungrateful twit, you know damn well . . . .”). Luckily, I now live with a walking, talking, 13-yr-old reminder of just how annoying “ungrateful twit” is on a daily basis. :-)

    I will say, I agree completely with the writing. The people I know who are the most successful are the ones who are really excited about work and throw all their energy into it — not as an ego thing, or a money thing, but because they think they are doing something important, helping people, contributing something to the world (yes, these are lawyers; jokes beginning . . . now). That energy is contagious, and I think it gives the clients the sense that these guys are really looking out for them and advocating for the client’s best interest, vs. lining their own pockets.

    And on the flip side, fear can be a great motivator, but it takes you only so far. My fear of ending up poor took me a long way. But now that I’ve finally realized that I’m never going to have to eat cat food (I cannot stop myself from adding “knock on wood” here), it certainly does take something away from the daily energy quotient. . . .

  9. Perhaps. In that there have been opportunities for me that coulda woulda been more $$ + bigger fish in smaller pond, that I* left on the table because I/we are/were comfortable in our situation. Fear of the unknown? Maybe.
    More probably stage / station in life. We don’t really NEED more income (always nice, clearly) and where I am has enough flexibility to allow pursuit of the rest of life. And, while there is a lot of life left to live, career growth isn’t necessarily where I am now. I’ve gotten to the point where I am truly expert in a couple of things that other people seem clueless about, so there’s a good demand for my services. For now, I’m good with where things stand career wise.

    *DW’s position is completely geography neutral. Given modern communication services and proximity to an airport, she’s good to go.

  10. It’s funny, I see the difference most when I compare myself to the guys (always guys) who are kind of at the same station in life as I am: trying to build a client base, have young kids, etc. They work a TON, always go to lots of events, etc., *and* I am about 98% sure they are the primary or sole breadwinner. The additional time-away-from-the-kids that is involved in their career-building is quite a bit, compared to my time.

    Rhode, my fear at beginning of career was also impostor syndrome-based, but I also thought the worst thing in the world would be to get fired. Now it would just be a hassle to get my own firm set up and figure out health care, but definitely not the worst thing in the world!

  11. One of the reasons that I wanted to leave my full time job is that I was working for a bully, and he was just mean. I tried to convince myself after 20+ years of a successful run in banking that I I didn’t have to fear him, but it didn’t work. I had the eye twitches, inability to sleep all night, and I just didn’t want to mess anything up.

    There are times when I was promoted, or managing a product that I didn’t fully understand. I would try to get up to speed as quickly as possible, but stuff would still go wrong.

    The good news is that even major screw ups could be fixed, but I couldn’t imagine if I worked in healthcare or any field that could impact someone’s life. I am rarely in a school building now that my DD has left elementary school, but I was in the middle school today. An announcement was made over the PA to alert all the emergency medical team to come to the nurse’s office. I had no idea what was happening, but I later learned that a child had a seizure and this team assisted the nurse until the ambulance came to the school. It was only a couple of minutes because the ambulance happens to be very close to the school. Some of the teachers are certified EMTs and they helped the nurse.

    I can’t imagine the responsibility that now belongs to a school nurse. It used to be a cushy job when I was a kid, but I would have real fears if I was in this job because of the number of kids with life threatening allergies, diabetes, etc.

  12. After 13 years at the engineering firm, steadily taking on more responsibility and reaching a senior leadership position, I thought I was safe. I wanted to stick it out through the recession and be part of the rebuilding, and I thought my bosses understood, having been through 40 years of ups & downs in the business. . .Big mistake in not having enough fear. Huge blow to the ego that definitely has me making all decisions since then with some element of fear. Especially when I got “restructured” out of the next job within 15 months and then only made it about 15 months in the next one, coming out feeling like a huge failure for just not being able to handle the work. Through it all, I have been a good impostor – acting like it’s just another adventure, working my network, maintaining a positive attitude. . .trying to fake-it-’til-you-make-it. Meanwhile, my marriage was crumbling and I was fighting depression and anxiety. This weekend I finally pulled together budget numbers and figured out what I wanted to ask H for in terms of child and spousal support, and then he got laid off this morning. Sorry to be a downer, but I just want to hit the reset button and go back about 21 years.

  13. The good news is that even major screw ups could be fixed, but I couldn’t imagine if I worked in healthcare or any field that could impact someone’s life.

    Well, some of your colleagues sure did impact a lot of lives.

  14. SWVA – I am so sorry. You have had to deal with a lot in a relatively short amount of time.

  15. SWVA, I am sorry!!! I have gone through periods in my life where everything seems to go wrong for long periods of time. You will get through this….focus on you daughter, your dog…anything to make each day a little bit positive.

  16. SWVA – I think Rhett’s comment sums it up best. Insert picture of kitty with two paws hanging onto that tree branch.

  17. SWVa – what Rhett said. Sorry you are going through this, and I hope some breaks start going your way soon. Please take care of yourself.

  18. Thank you all, I plan on venting here more in the days & weeks to come.

    In good news, I am going to the Greenbrier this weekend with a friend, using a voucher I got for volunteering at their golf tournament last summer. (Unfortunately, it’s going to cost a lot more than the cheap room rate!)

  19. SWVA – very sorry about your current situation. You’ll make it. Feel free to unload on us when you need to. Plus what others said.

  20. SWVA Mom – really sorry to hear that.

    Fear just makes me hyper efficient – trying to avoid having things go wrong.
    It is a legacy of my first job. I also try to get up to speed quickly and ask questions because the one time in a new job that I didn’t – I lacked direction and got a bad review for the first time. It was also the time I had my first child and there was too much going on for me to stay on, so I got a fresh start elsewhere.
    I have been displaced twice but that hasn’t impacted me because it wasn’t anything I could control.
    At this point I like what I do and I hope I can continue working full time at least till my kids are in college.
    Like many here, I could face having to care for elders plus other issues on the home front in which case continuing to work would be a lot of stress and not worth the money.

  21. Oh, man, SWVA. Hugs. Do you currently have a job? Sorry if I should know that.

  22. SWVA – so sorry and what Rhett said. Try to remember to breathe and lean on us whenever you need to.

  23. @SWVA — well, crappity-do-dah. I hate it when the other shoe drops. Please add my good thoughts to everyone else’s.

  24. Love without expletives? Well wasn’t really thinking along those lines . . ..

    Life, folks, life. (I’m going to blame autocorrect instead of my terrible typing.)

  25. RMS – Yes, I started my current job in December and it seems to be going ok and I like it, so fingers crossed for a good 6-month performance review in June. As a software engineer, H should have no trouble finding a job – it’s just a matter of how picky he will be and whether the salary will match what he was getting at a well-funded startup that just decided to go in a different direction.

  26. SWVA. It so tough to get your mind set and ready in such a momentous step and then have to sit tight yet again. I don’t recall from prior posts if you have already consulted with legal counsel or a licensed mediator or similar professional, but if not, please take this enforced hiatus to do so before presenting numbers or terms. As much as you want to and think you can do this as civilized adults, it is best to leave most of the formal negotiations to the agents.

  27. SWVA: Rhett + LFB + everyone else. Please feel free to vent here. So sorry about your recent troubles.

  28. SWVA – what Rhett said. And what Meme said — how difficult and frustrating to be ready to have that discussion, and then find this has happened. Add me to the list of folks here willing and ready to hear you vent as much as you need to. xo

  29. SWVA – so sorry. I think Rhett summed it up the best. Enjoy the Greenbriar. I recommend one drink too many, but not two.

  30. SWVA – Rhett +1 and what Meme said too. Feel free to vent here. Enjoy the Greenbriar.

  31. SWVA – I agree that Rhett put it best. Enjoy your time at the Greenbriar and try to relax as much as you can. I can’t remember if you got a new puppy yet – I hope if you have that he/she is a help to you in these tough times!

  32. SWVA, so sorry to hear that! I know you saw the train coming a while ago and were hoping it would somehow jump the track. Take care of yourself! On a practical note, if you think your husband will find another job quickly, should you wait until he does until having a lawyer present your requests?

    On topic, I dealt with imposter syndrome, stemming from the time a guy who had recommended me to a program tried to get in my pants, for a long time. And, as much as I love researching a topic and presenting papers, the in-between step of writing the paper makes me queasy. There is usually a point, starting about 2/3 of the way through, when I hate it and cry as I force my fingers to type. It lasts until the last couple of pages. I know part of why I’m not applying now is that im afraid no one will hire me without more publications, think fear is a fair label for why I don’t just sit down and knock a few out. I feel like a failure now, but being turned down would put that in writing.

  33. SM – I don’t know how it works in academia but can’t you apply for a position that doesn’t require so many publications ? My reasoning is that you have to start back up somewhere so even if it is not the ideal job right away it can allow to work yourself back to where you were. Or maybe find a different path using your background ?
    My personal feeling is that the more you delay the harder it will be.

  34. SWVa– Ugh. Rhett and Meme +1. I’m glad you’re employed in the middle of this storm, but that’s a lot of waves to navigate at once!

  35. SWVA: Meme +1 for advice, and Rhett +1 for feeling

    And while it is critical that you have a supportive sounding board where you can safely vent, please keep in mind that this blog is public.

  36. SWVA, I’ve thought about you often, because many engineers in our area have been similarly affected by the economy and jobs coming-and-going. I’m also sorry about your family situation and wish the best for all of you.

  37. I’ve got to pull out my Southern and say, “Thank y’all and bless your hearts.” And I certainly didn’t intend to hijack L’s post on an excellent topic! While all of my involuntary job changes were rough, I feel like I have successfully changed my career path at this point. H has plenty of opportunities if he decides to stay here, and plenty more if he wants to move. I have an attorney, a therapist, some good friends, and a family who will be supportive when I see them Easter weekend and tell them what’s going on. . .I think I’ll eventually be OK.

  38. Louise is right. It has been 5 years. You will not get back into academia and the longer you wait the less likely it is that you will be able to get a job at all.

  39. I don’t usually go around quoting Angelina Jolie, but this bit in a piece she wrote about her recent surgery to forestall cancer caught my eye.  I can relate to how she describes it.

    Regardless of the hormone replacements I’m taking, I am now in menopause. I will not be able to have any more children, and I expect some physical changes. But I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life. It is nothing to be feared.

    We deal with what life thrusts upon us, and sometimes that looks like bravery, but maybe sometimes it’s just simply dealing with life.

  40. “sometimes that looks like bravery, but maybe sometimes it’s just simply dealing with life.”

    +1. Because what other choice do you really have? I had this exact conversation with my Granny, when I pulled out an “I don’t know how you managed” after she was a widowed in WWII with one toddler and another on the way (and no money and far from home). She just gave me this confused/annoyed look and said, basically, well, what else was I supposed to do?

  41. “sometimes that looks like bravery, but maybe sometimes it’s just simply dealing with life.”

    +1 – but this doesn’t mention that while doing that you may feel like a basket case some to all of the time. But, you just haven’t let most people see that side, especially your kids. I think the “how did you manage” often relates to handling the emotions while going through tough times, not that you expected them to curl up in a ball and do nothing.

  42. CoC, I don’t know much about A Jolie, but after two preventative surgeries, it doesn’t look so much like dealing with life as having an unhealthy fear.

  43. I am not an Angelina Jolie fan, but I don’t think it is an “unhealthy” fear, her mother died at 49 from ovarian cancer, and she has the gene mutation. I think I would likely do the same thing, especially if I had so many young kids.

  44. She had an over 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer (which is very deadly almost impossible to detect early) because of the BRCA mutation. Her choice to have surgery is rational, not unhealthy IMO. I would do the same if I had it.

  45. S&M – Over the years I have had several brilliant single/divorced mom friends with serious academic careers interrupted by life issues, including one who was a tenured professor. None of them became accountants, so keep reading. One, whose life arc has many close parallels to yours, including international field work, a social sciences PhD and a mixed race child, took ordinary employment after her hiatus (when academics did not provide further employment) in her late 40s as a low level administrator at the local elite uni, with supplementation of her income and college costs for kids borne by other family, and now in her 60s does the sort of work you would enjoy, full time in and out of Haiti in relief work in partnership with one adult child. The professor had to relocate for medical reasons in her 40s, and took a non academic position running a special university wide program in her new location at a top small college. Eventually she talked her way back into teaching and research, although not in a standard tenured position. But she had no break in employment, and had already reached a certain level that gave her more options.

  46. Glad I included the caveat about being clueless! Yes, if her likelihood of getting that kind of cancer was so high, her action does make sense.

    Meme, thanks for your comment.

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