How To Stop Worrying About Getting It Wrong

Last week, I co-presented a live workshop here in New York City with rock star coach and founder of Six-Figure Start Caroline Ceniza-Levine on how to handle high stakes performance situations (a client negotiation, funding request or performance review, for example).

The participants were smart, accomplished and asked insightful questions. What I realized, however, is how often we look for black-and-white answers. We want to know exactly what to say and do when a particular thing — when we’re intimidated by someone with authority, caught off guard with a question or pressured to say yes — happens.

That, frankly, is the wrong approach. Why? One, because, just like underwear, there is no “one size fits all” answer that will be appropriate in every circumstance. And two, because asking “what should I do?” is often coming from a place of fear.

When you’re so narrowly focused on not making a mistake or doing the wrong thing, you’re too much in your head and not taking in information that would actually help you respond more effectively. You misinterpret someone’s look of confusion as disagreement, for example, or see their silence as disapproval and become defensive. When if you were to stay present you would be better able to respond to what happens in the moment instead of by rote.

So why are we so afraid of making a mistake anyway? Because being wrong feels like rejection and that — according to our lizard brain which thinks we’re still cavemen living in the Stone Age — is a threat to our survival: we could be thrown out of the tribe for not giving an eloquent answer to why we want a promotion!

However, there is one thing you can do that will pretty much always apply: notice when you’re thinking in vague, ambiguous terms like “doing it wrong” or “screwing up” and define exactly what that means. Is it not knowing a market statistic? Stumbling over your words? Once you’ve pinpointed what an actual mistake looks like, you can figure out what action to take to avoid it (e.g. create a cheat sheet of pertinent figures, practice saying your demand statement out loud, mentally rehearse what you’ll do if you get flustered).

Doing this will help you better handle missteps when (not if) they happen. And that, by the way, is much more important than the fact that you made a mistake to begin with.

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