(NOTE: Most of this content is from a post in April 2016, with some updated information.)

Think about a time when you needed to do something, but were too apprehensive to make the move.

Everyone has been there. Whether it’s failure, anticipation of criticism, lack of confidence of your ability, or other factors, fear is almost always the root cause. That is one of the things we work through in Toastmasters – conquering fear. We always have something we are afraid of. Usually when you conquer a fear, you find there’s another one to be conquered that was hiding behind the first one.

I’m one of the rare ones that didn’t start out in Toastmasters with a fear of public speaking. I can be quite the clown and have always enjoyed an audience. While I didn’t fear public speaking, I knew I wasn’t very good at it. After nearly 10 years as a member, I can say my effectiveness improved. The biggest factor in that improvement was getting excellent feedback – and that turned out to be the big fear I needed to conquer. This wasn’t a major surprise. I have always been my worst critic and am always extremely hard on myself. That goes back to childhood. I don’t exactly look like everyone else. That made for challenging times growing up, because kids on the playground don’t usually treat different people very well. What I was really surprised about was that because of my physical appearance, other kids usually assumed I was dumb. (Some psychologist could probably get filthy rich if (s)he could discover the link between white hair and an assumed low IQ.) I didn’t make things any easier on myself by believing them. By the time I flunked astronomy in college at age 23, I was certain I was the dumbest animal on 2 legs – and probably dumber than some on 4 legs, like sheep.

As I moved into the working world, landing a job as an admin in one of Charlotte’s mega-banks, I began to build up some confidence, as the admin role suited me and I got good performance reviews. Eventually I was at Duke Energy, a member of a top-notch administrative professionals association, and a holder of their professional certification. I had come a long way, baby!

Until the bottom dropped out.

I landed an Executive Assistant position supporting a Vice President. To say this VP was hard to work for is an understatement. If you could survive, the rewards were great, and as a person, he was a great guy. But he was demanding on a whole other level. Here’s an example: Say you get a meeting notice, and you accept it. The next day you get a new meeting notice with a revision – date, time, location, etc. You accept the new notice and move on, right? When I set up a meeting on behalf of this VP, and then had to change it, I would get roasted. Under no circumstance was a revised meeting notice acceptable. “But (insert name of key attendee here) asked if we could move the meeting to next Thursday because a conflict has come up,” I would protest. “You should have been able to see that coming,” would be the reply. Really? I was supposed to anticipate that the piano recital of the daughter of one of your direct reports was going to be delayed 2 days and bump up against this meeting? When you add in the fact that this VP believed the only way to eliminate mistakes was to punish those who made them, and you have the recipe for the creation of a serious neurotic. 

The VP eventually decided he had had enough of me, called HR, and I was ordered into the Employee Assistance Program. That turned out to be a real blessing, as it led to me getting the antidepressant I had needed since my parents’ breakup when I was 8. But it also left me hesitant, and a perfectionist. When I had to turn in work assignments, I would review them multiple times, sometimes dozens, because I’m sure something is not right. When I did submit them, I braced myself for the immediate “this isn’t correct” response. This continued after the VP officially threw me out and I was forced to a lower-ranking job.

When I joined our company’s Toastmasters club in December 2008, the welcoming and friendly atmosphere was a big attraction, considering the tough environment I had just emerged from. I jumped in with both feet and gave my first speech 3 weeks after joining. And that’s where I discovered that you can get constructive feedback without having your head chopped off. You could be told what you need to improve and also what you were doing well. A perfect combo. I started giving speeches at a crazy pace. I ate it up.

Then I turned 40. You know how really old people lose that filter that causes you to speak with tact and diplomacy, and say anything they want? I intentionally threw off that filter when I turned 40. I decided I was not going to waste one more second of my life worrying about what others thought of me. Most liberating thing I’ve ever done. It made life much better.

Is all perfect? Not hardly. I still have to fight off the urge to comb over my work assignments to the tiniest detail in search of a mistake I made before turning them in. Most of the time, good is good enough.

Like most anything else in a person’s character, this trait can be a great asset or a stumbling block. It can be a stumbling block when you refuse to take action because you fear something isn’t 100% perfect (the document, the timing, the recipient, etc.). It can be an asset when used to pay attention to detail and turn in high-quality work. Strike the balance – be concerned with making it high-quality, but do not sit back in fear of missing a tiny error that can be fixed with a mouse click or two. You can also hire a Virtual Assistant to edit and proofread your writing tasks, or write them entirely. Do the Contact Us thing and let’s explore ways to make your writing projects shine.

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