After my last post, I was chatting with a former colleague. She talked about the impact of fear on her professional choices– that she feels an immense sense of fear with the pursuit and acceptance of each new opportunity. I forget the corollary to that comment– whether it actually impacts her choices regarding taking on challenges or if she was just making a comment about the presence of the feeling. She then added that that was one reason for considering graduate school– that I had and others had commented on feeling more confident having secured an advanced degree. She said that it felt like it would help her with the fear.
But then I disagreed. While going back to school did yield me opportunities to learn new skills and frameworks, I actually don’t think it took away the sense of fear that I too experience every time I try something new.
I started thinking about fear in the context of my current situation. To recap: I was let go from my last job because of financial reasons. It was a huge ego blow. I started a new job about 6 weeks later due to a professional contact. Starting a new job is always hard: you feel a little bit useless because you’re still learning everything. But if you are a type A person like me, you feel this immense level of responsibility, like you need to prove that you’re the right one for the job, right then and right there.
For this reason, I feel a lot of fear these days, though I think I’m doing a pretty good job. And I guess the fear is really just: I hope I’m living up to the expectations of others. And despite having a lot of work experience and advanced degree– I don’t think this fear has mitigated since my earlier professional days. In fact, I think as time goes on, the stakes seem to get higher. And therefore, I actually feel like my sense of fear has increased.
I think the fear exists on several levels. The world seems just generally less stable now (so this is more of a statement about the economy, I guess). I grew up in Silicon Valley and back in the 80s and 90s, a person could work at the same, blue chip tech company for their entire careers. They didn’t have to keep up, they didn’t have to worry about downsizing. Life was good and so long as they didn’t suck, they were golden. The tech industry just feels so much more erratic now. The blue chips aren’t stable (in fact, they are probably the greatest at risk). Working at a startup isn’t stable. Even working at a startup where an ideal outcome (IPO or acquisition) isn’t stable. What if you help a company do the impossible and then you are let go due to talent consolidation? So the economy in which I work is a scary place.
I also think there’s that constant fear of becoming antiquated in Silicon Valley. If you Google “ageism in Silicon Valley”, you’ll see that this is a well-covered topic. It actually makes me think back to 2006, when I was working at Google and had invited my friend, an employment lawyer, to lunch at one of our cafes. He looked around at all the young faces and said, “This place is an employment timebomb.” (He then proceeded to take as many vegan cookies as he could stuff into his pockets.) I worry a lot that I will be replaced by someone younger and cheaper. That my skills will no longer be relevant in the rapidly changing environment. I constantly have to keep up-to-date on industry trends, technology trends, social trends. So this invokes quite a lot of fear.
When I think back, fear is actually a reason that I considered NOT going to business school. There is something mildly comforting about a calm and mediocre professional life. What if I made it into a stable profession, let’s say HR, and just stuck around? Didn’t try to get ahead or progress up a ladder. How would that be compared to branding myself with an advanced degree and constantly being subjected to the assessment of employers like, Hmmm, she’s asking for more, but is she worth it?
Sadly, while I think the benefit of fear has propelled me into taking lots of risks in my life: taking on new jobs, traveling and living abroad, making 11th hour choices that fundamentally impacted the course of my life– I don’t think the fear goes away. It just moves. You see it. You know you have to go for it. You reach for it and maybe you get to it. But then it moves and you start all over again. It’s great for progress. But could life be easier and happier without it, perhaps?