How to fight the fear of making mistakes in your career

How is the uncertainty of these days affecting the progression of your career? Have you found strategies to cope with the fear of an unknown future?

If yes, please share them with us!

If not, let’s see together what we can learn from it, about ourselves and our careers, and how to cope with it.

The sudden change in our life brought by the pandemic has changed our perception of the future and introduced a high degree of uncertainty, which can lead to anxiety.

Looking at myself and other people around me or strangers sharing their experience on social media, I noticed a couple of different responses to this situation: on one side the hyperactivity trying to keep things running and organizing a future despite the fact that right now we have no idea of how it will unwind, on the other side the realization of having lost control of our future, leading to a sort of panic freezing and postponing any action to when everything will be resolved.


This uncertainty on a global scale affects the very core of how our society works, and we still don’t know what changes will be permanent and which kind of society we will have to adapt to tomorrow.

As a consequence, this is already affecting the job market, putting working remotely in the spotlight as a possible permanent solution, slowing down the hiring process, and causing the loss of many positions, as estimated by McKinsey. In particular, the article on Forbes “Tenure is dying” examines the effects on the academic job market in the next years.


Many of us may find ourselves overwhelmed by how these changes will affect our careers.

But what if this is the right time to take uncertainty in our advantage and to consider reinventing ourselves, taking the courage to change job or field?

Being at the end of my PhD, I’m at a crossroad deciding in which direction I want to direct my career. Trying to understand what scares me most about this unknown future, I discovered that for me the main problem is the fear of making mistakes. Indeed, the first thought that pops up in my mind when I consider any possible path is: “What if I’m choosing the wrong job? What if I fail?”



Illustration by Sara Dr. Sara M. Ayala Mariscal



Wondering where the fear of failure and the fear of making mistakes come from, I stumbled upon an interesting talk by Sir Kenneth Robinson, a British author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts. He explains how the fear of making mistakes is deeply rooted in our education system.


During our entire education, we are taught to avoid mistakes. We are praised when we succeed in avoiding mistakes because the evaluation system penalizes us if we don’t. Thus, we develop a very deep negative association with mistakes, as something we want to avoid at all costs.


The current education system is not taking into consideration its original meaning, as the etymology of education comes from the Latin e-ducere, which literally means to bring out, to extract. The verb ducere in Latin also means to lead, indeed the purpose of education is to accompany in the process of bringing out the essence, the combination of skills and interests which are unique to each one of us. This reminded me of what my dad used to tell me and my brother and sister when we would complain that we didn’t like some subject at school and we could not learn or remember what the teacher taught us:


“The secret to learning is to discover the seed of curiosity in some aspects of what you are doing.”

Basically, the current education system “educates us out of creativity” - affirms Sir Kenneth Robinson - because the fear of making mistakes kills the possibility of being curious, exploring different strategies, learning, and building on mistakes to create something new.


As scientists, if we are scared of making mistakes we will never discover something new.

That is because science is creative work, despite what most people might think, and it’s driven by curiosity. The only way we increased scientific knowledge for centuries is based on trial and error.


Many of you probably already know the beautiful essay The importance of stupidity in scientific research, written by Martin A. Schwartz and published in the Journal of Cell Science in 2008. What I found most useful in this article is the realization that one of the biggest lessons science teaches us is that making mistakes does not mean failure:

“One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time.”

For sure research is not for the faint-hearted since it requires developing emotional resilience and getting comfortable with our own limits:


“What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. [...] we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying.”

What this article reminds us is that when the fear of making mistakes or feeling stupid stops us from taking action, paralyzes us in front of challenges, we should embrace the scientific approach and see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow.

This will boost our curiosity and creativity - we will not get to a genius idea without having a lot of stupid ones and we cannot deepen our knowledge if we are afraid to ask questions when we don’t understand.

And it will help us to make courageous decisions in life, like choosing a career path.


As scientists and PhDs we are equipped not only to deal with the unknown and mistakes, but we are trained to excel in transforming them into knowledge and experience.

That’s a skill we learn during our PhD and we should leverage it in our career.





Thanks to Amani Said, who introduced us to her coach Blair Singer, speaker and author of several books, we can add a couple of more tools to our PhD experience toolbox, to get the best out of any situation - wins and mistakes alike.




Debrief


To overcome the fear of making mistakes and to transform them into occasions to grow and learn, we need to shift our perspective from criticizing what went wrong to correcting it. To do so, Blair Singer suggests a set of questions to help analyze the event - we can use it for mistakes but also for our successes - breaking it down to smaller pieces in order to understand the critical point.



To start you set the frame for your analysis:


1) What happened?


For example, I missed the deadline I agreed with my supervisor for one chapter of my thesis and I had to delay it for one week.



Then, you focus on the aspects that worked, which you can repeat in the future in similar situations:


2) What worked?


In the example, I didn’t panic and managed to work efficiently after the deadline reducing distractions and prioritizing the tasks.



You also need to objectively identify the problems, the more you are specific the more effective your analysis will be:


3) What did not work?


Sticking to the same example, it’s clear that time management was the problem.



At this point, you pinpointed the facts and want to go deeper into understanding the problem:


4) Why?


It’s very important, to be honest and avoid laying blame, try to find justification or hide in denial - my supervisor never reads what I send him, or I was busy doing experiments - otherwise, the real reason will not emerge.

In the example, the reason was that I was insecure about my writing and I postponed writing about some topics I was not sure about.



The last part of the exercise allows to transform the event - mistake or win - into an experience:


5) What did I learn?


For example, I learned that a literature search needs to be well organized otherwise it takes up all my time to write.



6) What did I learn about myself?


I learned that I need to work on my insecurities.



And finally, you can project your experience to the future:


7) What will I do differently?


Here you can write about the future you want! With concrete steps, you now have the knowledge and experience to improve.






Little Voice Techniques: How to deal with adversity


Another technique from Blair Singer can help us deal with our mistakes or other adversities that come in our way:


1. Do not make it personal.


Do not attribute the problem to yourself personally - for example: “I am so stupid!” or “I am lazy, that is why it happened!”

Of course, as we saw in the debrief, it’s important to take responsibility for our mistakes, but trashing yourself is of no help to solve the problem.



2. Isolate the incident.


Do not project it into the future, for example thinking “now my whole week is ruined”, or “my entire life is screwed!”

Most likely, that mistake of that difficult situation it’s simply what it is, and if you don’t make it bigger it will be easier to deal with.



3. Don’t allow the problem or mistake to be global.


If you start summing up in your brain all the problems of your life and you connect them as if everything is doomed and you are the cause of it, you are very far to even start solving one of them. If you just take the situation for what it is objectively, you’re already halfway through its resolution!




Now that you have all the tools to make the best out of any situation, I invite you to look at these uncertain times as an adventure rather than a risk for your career:


“You have to take a chance. Your life is not pre-planned: you create your own life. You can only make sense of it retrospectively, you write your CV and try the best you can to make it look like a plan because the last thing you want is to convey the actual chaos you have been living in.”

-Sir Ken Robinson



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