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.
“You should never have major conversations or make major decisions after midnight.”
Such a simple statement. And such a great piece of wisdom.
Most people recognize that we shouldn’t make decisions when we’re drunk. Duh. Our judgment is impaired. Yet it’s incredible how many of us will have no qualms about making major decisions at other times where our judgment may be just as impaired, such as when we need sleep. Research has shown that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. It may be even more dangerous because people don’t even realize how dangerous it is, so they’re more likely to actually do it. It’s about time we recognize the dangers of being drowsy.
Just say no to sleep deprived decisions.
Think about it. When have you made a major decision at 2am? In college, Winnie decided to cut her own bangs at some ungodly hour that only college students see on a regular basis. Just because she felt like she needed to change her look. You can imagine how she felt about that decision the following morning. And for the six months it took to grow her bangs back out. Amazing thing is, this happened three different times in her college career. And they were all bad decisions.
Two years ago I thought I found the perfect apartment, which was big enough for my then boyfriend (now fiance) to move into whenever he felt ready. I wanted him to weigh in on the decision, but we were both so crazy busy with work that the only time I could catch him was after midnight. And what came of those conversations we had late at night about that apartment and the prospect of living together? Nothing. He was too tired to think straight. What happened when we had the same conversation during daylight hours? He realized that it was silly for me to move into my own apartment just seven blocks away from where he lived, so he decided to move in with me. It’s amazing how clear a little bit of sleep can make your mind.
So today (or tonight), I’m asking you to join me in taking this pledge: It can wait until morning.
Because it can. Really. There’s a reason they say, “Sleep on it.”
“So, I ask… any words of advice?”
I didn’t know what to write back. I was excited by but also unprepared for the overwhelming response I got after my talk at UC Berkeley. I poured out my story to a group of strangers, in hopes that they would open up and ask questions they may not have asked otherwise. And they did ask. But even after this one girl took a risk and poured out her own story into an email, I didn’t know how to answer her question.
I can talk about my own experience, and I can pass along advice that I’ve found helpful, but sometimes it seems like people really just want to know what they should do.
I can’t tell them. I wish I could, but it’s their decision to make. The most that I can do is help people sort through their thoughts and help them come to a good decision, using one of the most useful concepts I learned in undergrad.