How to Turn Your Biggest Fear Into Your (Career) Superpower
Negative beliefs can derail success, but there’s a way to modify them to your favor. Just ask Richard Branson.
6 min read
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“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”
As a child, I was extraordinarily shy. Naturally, I was terrified of public speaking. Show-and-tell was a nightmare. But of course, I was far from alone in my extreme aversion to speaking in front of others. Research shows that public-speaking anxiety, or glossophobia, affects a whopping 73 percent of the population. Interestingly, it turns out that this widespread fear might be tied closely to a primal need to avoid — at all costs — being rejected by our peers. Back in the Stone Age, survival was all about safety in numbers. Successful communities ate together, slept together and hunted together. To be ostracized meant a certain death. Fast forward to now, and it seems possible we haven’t evolved past this deep-rooted survival mechanism. In order to “protect” ourselves against potential peer “rejection” (i.e. death), our subconscious creates beliefs that fuel our fears, trying to prevent us from putting ourselves out there. This type of negative belief is exactly what I experienced as an extremely shy kid, with typical thoughts like, “If I say something stupid, others will think I’m stupid and worthless.”
The problem with negative beliefs is that they constrain our behavior and tend to build on themselves over time, limiting our potential. As Author Steven Sisgold describes it, these early, core beliefs become our “reality-making blueprint” for life. They have the power to direct and/or limit the actions we take, establish a specific course we will follow and even harness or hijack our passion. Scary, right?
The good news is that once we begin to recognize limiting beliefs, we can start taking flipping them into empowering ones that propel positive outcomes. There are plenty of individuals out there who have done just that, and here are a couple of archetypal examples to get you motivated.
The Four-Minute Mile
One of my favorite examples of how destroying a limiting belief empowered not one, but hundreds of people, is the story of the four-minute mile. Up until May 6,1954, it was commonly believed that no human could possibly run a mile in four minutes or less. Then, British middle-distance athlete and neurologist Roger Bannister shattered that assumption when he ran one in three minutes, 59.4 seconds. Then, within one year of him doing so, 37 other runners did. To date, over a thousand people have also achieved it. Thanks to Bannister, top runners all over suddenly realized that they too could run a mile faster than four minutes, and did just that. This is a fantastic real-life example of how shifting a single limiting belief can empower people to achieve greater things.
Imagine how this type of limiting belief might take hold in your career or in a workplace. It could make or break whether you try and achieve a deadline, revenue targets or personal job goals and achievement. This why it’s so important to recognize the beliefs that limit us and change them.
Here’s a stunning fact: According to a survey conducted in 2003, 40 percent of the world’s self-made millionaires have dyslexia. Legendary innovators, including Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell, were dyslexics. Why is it that such a disproportionate number of people with a seemingly born disadvantage have ended up so successful? Well, they’ve all figured out a way to shift their limiting beliefs, in powerful ways, to their advantage. As dyslexic Richard Branson describes it, “Dyslexia is not a disadvantage, it’s a different way of thinking.” The self-made entrepreneur reframes his disability to not even be a disability. Then he defines it as a unique advantage or vantage point. Clearly, this type of thinking has worked out for the billionaire entrepreneur.
We aren’t all born Bransons and Jobs, and so we may not all start out with the innate instinct to flip our limiting beliefs into empowering ones. But for the sake of our careers, we might want to take a page from some of the best and brightest achievers we know, like Branson, who have turned seemingly major “disadvantages” into success-fueling belief systems.
Self-help coach Tony Robbins works closely with many of the world’s most high-profile business leaders and celebrities and attests that, “All personal breakthroughs begin with a change in beliefs.” Robbins suggests that to get started, people should identify their old, limiting beliefs, digging deep and acknowledging just how they have caused pain in the past and may continue to do so in the present. This gives you leverage to get rid of that old belief. Then, the next step is to replace these limiting beliefs with empowering ones, making sure to associate feelings of enormous pleasure to the new beliefs. For instance, in my career I’ve replaced beliefs like, “If I try, I might fail” with, “The only way not to be a colossal failure over the long run is to constantly try new things and keep improving by learning from my mistakes.”
As for me, I’ve now done hundreds of public talks throughout my career. I’ve been able to overcome my fear by recognizing my limiting beliefs and replacing them with new ones like, “The only way I’ll fail is if I don’t play full out in my career, which requires being a great public speaker.” In fact, looking back now, turning many of my greatest fears on its head has been core to nearly every big breakthough I’ve had, allowing me to pursue my passion for social and environmental advocacy through the power of technology.
Now’s the time to ask yourself: What belief do you have that is limiting you? How might you start shifting that toward a more empowering belief?