Why Moving Past Fear is Essential for Asking Questions in the Workplace
There’s no telling where a simple question could take you. Here’s why and how you should take the leap.
This is the second installment of a 2-part series. Read Part I, “Ask Me Anything.”
What are you afraid of? In my last post, I described Pliancy’s open-access culture, the dangers of gatekeeping and information hoarding, and how openness can lead to skill-sharing and growth. That’s all well and good, but no matter how welcoming the environment, we can still be hamstrung by our own fears and uncertainties.
Fear (of asking questions, of embarrassment, of failure, or whatever else) can prevent us from asking important questions that need to be asked, which in turn prevents us from learning the information and skills we need to grow. If I can share one radical thought, it’s that we don’t need to conquer fear. We don’t need to beat it up and take its lunch money; we just need to move past it. Fear isn’t a brick wall. It’s a curtain.
So how do we push aside the Fear-Curtain™? I wish I could give you a definite, never-fail, money-back-guarantee answer… but we have different fears and different brains. What I can do is share what has helped me push my Fear-Curtain aside: letting myself be bad at things, reframing fear as opportunity, and accepting that embarrassment is only temporary.
Let Yourself Be Bad
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received was from a yellow stretch dog in a cartoon. “Dude,” he said, “sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.” I promise I don’t get all my sage wisdom from animated characters (just most of it), but this simple sentence has stuck with me. We’re going to try a lot of things in our short lives. We’ll probably be terrible at 80% of them, and there’s no shame in that.
We’re conditioned to believe that we fail more than others. In reality, that’s only because we witness every time we stumble. Behind closed doors, in other spaces, at all hours of the day, everyone experiences failure. Literally everyone. Even Beyonce. Let that really sink in.
The key is to let yourself be bad at the beginning. Keep at it, and you’ll get a little better. Ask questions to learn what you don’t know, and you’ll get better still. Before you know it, effort and knowledge quickly transform into skill.
Don’t forget about the 20% of new things you aren’t terrible at, either. Everyone has innate talents, including you, and natural ability and continued effort are a powerful match.
I’ve had a knack for technology my entire life, and I’m one of the lucky people who gets to make a living doing something I’m good at and something I like. But it doesn’t mean I took my aptitude and coasted on it. I’ve built upon it with each job, each certification, and each technological head-scratcher I encounter.
Trying (and trying again) is an important mindset whether you’re pursuing a professional passion or experimenting with a new hobby. No matter your baseline, the potential for growth is always there.
Reframing Fear as Opportunity
The next shift was changing my perspective to see opportunity where I once saw peril.
First, we should acknowledge that society has assigned a negative value to being unskilled at something. It can sometimes feel like failing at a new skill is a moral failure, e.g. “I am bad at juggling, therefore I myself am bad.”
I’ll let you in on a secret: that’s not true. Having a skill is not positive or negative. Trying and failing to juggle doesn’t make you a bad person. Unfortunately, knowing how to juggle does not make you a good person, either. (I think you’re rad either way.)
What is a “Good” Question?
We shouldn’t assign value to specific types of questions, either. A simple question is no better or worse than an open-ended question. The right question, asked in the right context, could be more impactful than another—but change the environment, the audience, even the intonation, and it’s a whole new ball game.
Once I let go of the idea that failure is “bad,” I could focus on what I have to gain. Every time I start something new, I’m full of questions. “How do I…” “What’s the best way to…” “Is this right?” Every piece of knowledge I add to my collection helps me grow, and as a lifelong learner, it’s easy for my fear to become eclipsed by excitement.
I’ve Got No Strings to Hold Me Down
This mindset helped me get to Pliancy because the excitement of this role outweighed any anxiety I had that I might not be talented enough to be here. But here I am, a lean, mean, problem-solving machine, and I’m thriving. That same excitement-over-fear approach makes me perfectly suited for a job where I get to learn how to untangle new knots every day.
Trading the fear of embarrassment for the excitement of opportunity has enriched my personal life in unexpected ways, too. I’m a 36-year-old who plays on a kickball team and loves it, and if that doesn’t scream “I’m not embarrassed by what you think,” then I don’t know what does.
Failure at Pliancy
I don’t want to speak for my colleagues, but it seems like many of them have undergone a similar transformation. We’re an amalgamation of dreamers, creators, and problem-solvers. We swing big, and we’re too busy being excited by opportunity to be ruled by fear.
Failure is something to be celebrated. Sure, it would be nice if we were immediately successful at everything we did (that’s the dream, right?). But barring that, failure means we’ve pushed ourselves to try something new—and have likely learned a lot in the process.
Navigating the Obstacle Course
There’s no shortage of reasons you might hesitate to let yourself be vulnerable. Maybe your company culture doesn’t offer you a safety net for failure. Maybe you’ve seen others judged for asking what others considered to be the “wrong” question, or perhaps you yourself have been burned before. Mental health issues, including social anxiety, can ratchet the hurdles even higher, and as someone with anxiety and bipolar disorder, I relate.
When we stop ourselves from taking the leap, it’s commonly because we catastrophize. What if my coworkers think I’m asking a laughably simple question? What if there are follow-up questions and I don’t know how to respond? What if my team members judge me?
And to that, I say: Okay. What if?
This Too Shall Pass
More often than not, the worst-case scenario is feeling embarrassed. And once I realized—really, truly understood—that embarrassment was fleeting, my entire attitude transformed.
We all cringe at memories of things we’ve done in the past. Our brains like to show us our blooper reel while we’re trying to fall asleep. But the immediacy of embarrassment, that cover-your-eyes feeling, the hot flash of shame, dims eventually. The conversation will move on. Other questions will be asked. The conversation or meeting or day will end. Soon enough, I’ll forget too.
That’s a feature, not a bug. The purpose of embarrassment, in my worldview, is to course-correct behavior. It fades by design so you can dust yourself off and try again. Knowing that embarrassment is impermanent, who’s to say I can’t skip ahead to the chapter where I’m already over it?
Ways to Challenge Yourself
I’m not claiming I can make you immune to fear and embarrassment. I won’t be the star of a “Therapists hate him!” clickbait ad anytime soon.
Changing your relationship to fear is a personal journey, and it’s one that will be unique for each of us. I hope what you’re able to take away from my candor and experience is that it’s possible to build this kind of habit like you would any other.
If you’re interested in moving past a fear of asking questions, here are three suggestions for getting started:
Start with Yourself
Instead of focusing on what scares you, reflect on what you have to gain. Having questions can be scary, but it means you’re in a position to grow. Your question could lead you to a fun fact about armadillos (did you know they sleep for 16 hours a day?)—or it could lead you to the next great passion that changes your life’s trajectory. The possibilities are endless.
Walk Before You Run
Ask questions in safe spaces, then level up. Stack the deck in your favor by asking vulnerable questions in one-on-one conversations with trusted team members. (Is that already easy for you? Amazing. Keep going!) You can up the challenge depending on what intimidates you: group conversations, distant or senior coworkers, in-person meetings, or public venues, for example.
Consider the Positive Impacts
When we fixate on asking questions, it’s easy to forget how fulfilling answering questions can be. Try seeing things from the other side: walk a teammate you trust through one of your work processes and encourage them to ask any question they can think of. You might be surprised at how fun it is to teach them about what you do. When you ask questions, you’re giving people that joy, too.
A Prediction for the Future
We’re human beings, not automatons. We don’t come equipped with all the knowledge we could ever need, we can’t be perfect immediately, and we certainly can’t be perfect every time. We will make mistakes; that just means we’re trying. We will have questions; that means we have something to learn.
No one needs permission to move past fear. But if you disagree, let me write the permission slip for you now: start today. Even if you move slowly, keep flexing that muscle and know that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Someday soon—sooner than you expect—you’ll find yourself on the other side of fear, and you’ll wonder why it seemed so scary to get started. So I’ll repeat my opening question: what are you afraid of?
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