Yesterday my friend and I were trading stories about our mentoring and coaching experiences. One of his mentees is a senior at Stanford. His mentee has a job offer at a top consulting firm, but he’s trying to decide between that, working for a startup, or staying in school one more year to earn a master’s degree.
“My mentees often ask me, ‘What should I do?’ But I can’t tell them what to do. They have to make that choice on their own. But they seem terrified of making the wrong choice. What advice would you give them?”
It’s funny. The fears of those undergraduate students are not that different from the fears I see in the experienced professionals I coach. It’s not actually the fear of “What if I make the wrong choice?” (As I’ll explain in another post, there are methodologies you can adopt to avoid the regret of making the wrong choice.) Really, at the root of their fears is one super-scary question: “What happens if things don’t work out?”
This question is scary because the unknown is one big bad scary monster. Most people would rather stay in a situation they know is bad than walk away from that bad place and into the unknown. Uncertainty is scary. It’s like the fear of the monster under the bed. It’s scary, because you can’t see it.You don’t know where exactly it’s lurking or when it’ll come out to get you. It’s like fear of noises in the dark, which cause your imagination to run wild about whether it’s just a deer sneaking into your backyard, or a psycho serial killer from a movie.
The best way to mitigate the fear of the unknown is to bring some certainty into the situation. Shine a light into the darkness and see what’s there. To do that, think about the following 5 questions:
1) What is it that you fear? Often, people are afraid of “What will happen if things don’t work out.” Well, what does that mean? “Losing everything” is too vague, and that will feed your fear. Have you lost money? Friends? Time? Your reputation? How much? Be concrete about what it is you are afraid of.
2) What is the absolute worst that can happen? What is going on in that situation? Paint a vivid image of what life looks like in that worst case scenario. Ask yourself, how realistic is this scenario? What are the chances it could actually come to this?
3) What safety nets do you have to protect you from that worst case scenario? If you lose your job, what other jobs would you be willing to take? If you can’t pay rent, where could you stay? If you need support, who may be willing to help? Also, if you don’t feel you have enough of a safety net now, identify what can you do now to ensure you have more of a safety net in the future.
4) How will you know when things are not working out? It’s not that common for things to go from awesome to awful in one day. More often, things unfold over time. What are the signs that things aren’t working out? How can you proactively and periodically check in on how things are going?
5) What action will you take when you know things are not working out?Shift the question from “What will happen if things don’t work out” to “What will I do if things don’t work out.” Take control of your fear by taking control of your actions.
This post originally appeared on Medium.com on February 19th, 2014.