Feel the fear and do it anyway

I did something for the very first time at the weekend. I went kayaking! Not that amazing, I hear you say. But it was exciting for me, as I’d never done it before. I had to learn a lot of new skills, such as how to launch the boat into the water, getting in and out of it (stylishly), as well as mastering the art of synchronised paddle technique. It’s not often that I do something new and it did feel a bit scary, but that’s what happens when you move out of your comfort zone. As Susan Jeffers says in her famous book: “Feel the fear and do it anyway”.

In terms of career development, we all need to keep growing and learning new skills to sustain our employability. Even during and after a PhD, there’s a constant need to keep updating knowledge and capabilities, especially in these times of constantly evolving technologies, globalisation and unanticipated calamitous events, such as the pandemic. In this blog, I will set out three ideas that illustrate the concept of career growth:

Figure from https://positivepsychology.com/comfort-zone/
  • ‘Leaving the comfort zone model’. This model illustrates how, in order to grow, we must first leave the safety of our ‘comfort zone’, overcome our fears and then submit ourselves to the zone of learning. Stepping into the fear zone is the first and most scary step and can involve feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. However with learning and practice comes confidence and a new purpose as we grow and develop.

Recently, I ran a career development workshop, in which I introduced postdoctoral researchers to activities and skills associated with effective networking. Some of the participants were hesitant and wary to start with – they were venturing from their zone of fear into the learning zone. However, by the end of the workshop, armed with new knowledge and resources and having had the chance to do some interactive rehearsals, they were more confident to put their learning into practice for real. Post-workshop feedback showed that many had already entered the growth zone, saying they had identified new networking opportunities, refreshed their LinkedIn profile and were already making new contacts!

  • Planned Happenstance. This is a career planning model that sets out how to harness chance events to our career advantage. Proposed by a well-renowed career academic, John Krumboltz, the key behaviours associated with harnessing chance and creating ‘luck’ moments include, being positive and proactive, being flexible and adaptable and being willing to take a risk. By ‘risk’, what the authors of the Planned Happenstance theory mean is doing something that is uncertain and potentially unsafe, i.e. stepping into the unknown. It’s this more risky area that can yield great results.

When I was trying to break into the careers advisory sector, I was unexpectedly offered a 3-month position as a university careers adviser. Even though I already had a very secure permanent role in publishing at the time, I chose to step out of my comfort zone and take the risk to grab this chance opportunity. I believed (rightly as it turned out) that even if it didn’t extend to a permanent position, the experiences gained would help me to apply for similar career posts in the future. These happenstance moments, which are usually referred to as ‘luck’, are often the turning point in people’s careers – it certainly proved to be so in my case and the rest is history as they say …..

  • Be a lobster! In this video, Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski uses the metaphor of a lobster shedding its shell to demonstrate the feeling of needing to change one’s situation as it becomes unbearably comfortable. During the lead up to a career transition, the prospect of change can be very daunting, especially if there’s a sense of being pushed out. However as the stresses and strains increase, this fear is overridden by a very real need to move on, as demonstrated in the transition figure above. The so-called ‘shedding’ process makes one vulnerable at first, but as the hard shell forms a new life begins, with a new sense of expansion and growth.

Transition can be a difficult process, especially for long-term researchers who have been in the academic system for many years, and who are now aiming to move into industry or business. It can seem a daunting prospect, with associated feelings of denial or even depression. However, as the situation becomes more uncomfortable and untenable it acts as an incentive to make the move. Career guidance and support can assist researchers moving out of academia, offering help with aspects such as self-presentation, job seeking strategies, information about employers and interview technique. The good news is that the vast majority of researchers who leave academia report that they are enjoying their new and rewarding non-academic careers (e.g. see PhD Career Stories).

As for me, I hear that our kayak can cope with grade 4 white water rafting, but that may a bit too far away from my comfort zone for the time being!

Related post: Keep learning to keep earning

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