A few years ago, I finally decided to take up the guitar, a long-time goal of mine. After playing for a while and becoming reasonably proficient, at least at the basics, I was asked by a friend to play and sing at his wedding. I thought, “Why not? I do pretty well in my study at home. How different could it be?”
When I shared this line of thinking with my music teacher, he asked if I had ever played in front of people before. I told him I hadn’t but, again, “how different could it be?” He suggested that, just to be sure, I take part in a recital he and his wife were planning for their music students the following week.
As the day of the recital approached, I found myself growing increasingly anxious. I began to worry about whether I would embarrass myself and be exposed for my limited skills. I worked feverishly to prepare but no amount of preparation removed the anxiety. I began to wonder if I should just forget the whole thing. Not just the recital, but also performing at my friend’s wedding. I think the only thing that prevented me from doing so was the thought of letting my friend down and causing him to make alternative plans so close to the date of the wedding.
The morning of the recital I sat in the parking lot outside the music studio going through a few final practices, still struggling with quivering knees and butterflies in my stomach. When I walked into the studio imagine my surprise when I found that the next oldest student (I was in my late 50’s) was 12 years old. The room was full of parents and grandparents, many of whom were younger than me! I didn’t know any of them, and would never see them again in all likelihood, but was terrified by the notion of looking foolish in front of them. When my moment came, I approached the stage, handed the teacher my music and bowed to the audience, just as the other students had done. I mentioned that my parents were unable to be present, which got a hearty laugh from the crowd and helped a bit to ease the tension I was feeling.
I took a deep breath and began. It was far from a perfect performance. But I noticed a few things. I felt the audience pulling for me, giving me emotional support and rooting for my success. And I found that beyond my anxiety was a feeling of pure exhilaration that came with having taken a risk, faced my fear, and accomplished something new.
As I thought about the whole experience, it struck me how as we grow into adulthood our fear of embarrassment dampens our willingness to take a risk and try something new. We stay within our “safe zone,” doing what we have always done and experiencing predictable, if not invigorating results. Contrast that to the enthusiasm and courage of children, excited to try something new, share their ideas, or take a risk. How much do we lose, in our organizations and in our lives, by playing it safe and coloring within the lines?
So how do we overcome this all too typical tendency as we grow into adulthood? At a personal level, it takes conscious awareness and a willingness to get “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” It helps to periodically step back and contemplate those avenues of growth you have always wanted to explore. Consider small experiments that provide an opportunity to get a “taste” of the exhilaration that of learning or doing something new. The good news is that, just like the audience for my recital, most people will be rooting for your success and supportive in your journey.
In an organizational setting, take steps to create an environment in which it is safe, and expected, to challenge conventional thinking. Keep an eye on the subtle but toxic tactics used to keep people coloring within the lines, the most notorious of which is the seemingly innocent practice of “teasing.” Nothing discourages risk-taking more than feeling foolish. Teasing can easily become a cultural norm, the natural give-and-take among team members. Consider the potential consequences and use it sparingly.
It is also helpful to deliberately feed the creative process. Engage in activities designed to fight against the pull to conform to conventional thinking. Step out of your normal environment and explore, through various means, people and information to spark new thoughts and ideas.
A coach can be an important source of perspective and support in this journey of growth. In our coaching practice, we talk about the phenomenon of “willing vs. wanting.” To achieve meaningful growth, one has to go beyond wanting to change to embrace a willingness to try something new. A coach can help identify and encourage your pursuit of opportunities for growth to help you develop the latent potential that lies within you.
In a recent interview following a major sports achievement, an athlete was asked if he had butterflies before his performance. He responded “Absolutely. But over time I have found the most meaningful and memorable moments in my life were those where I felt the butterflies. So now I spend my time searching for them.”
May your life be filled with butterfly moments of exhilaration and growth.