Sunday, November 1, 2009

Phobophobia and Nike!

Often the test of courage is not to die, but to live. -Vittorio Alfieri

When I was a summer associate at a large law firm in Chicago, I was a basket case of stress and stomach cramps, a nervous Nellie in my peach wool suit from the time I boarded the diesel spewing 151 bus each morning until it delivered me back to 2930 North Sheridan Road each night.

I was on tenterhooks that I was missing some important case when writing a brief, some case that would entirely disprove everything I had just written. I LOATHED all the social stuff. Small talk with partners at "summer associate events" and lunches to "see how the summer was coming," were surefire opportunities to make a schmuck of myself, not know which silverware to use in a multi-course meal or saying the wrong thing. I was afraid at some level of being found out as not quite up to the task, a mistake in their hiring system, a fraud.

I wondered if this fear of screwing up was just mine. The other summer associates seemed so confident in comparison. I had as my mentor, a truly wonderful litigation partner, who was in her mid-forties. We sat down to chat and I noticed the pictures of one-year-old twins on her desk. As I knew she worked 80 hour weeks, I asked her about this and she acknowledged it was a tough balance. Then I asked her more directly when the fear of blundering went away and she answered, without blinking, much of it goes away in about ten years. Ten years!! I didn't see my own personal psyche handling these day to day anxieties for a decade. I was afraid of being afraid for so long and there is an actual term for this, phobophobia (the fear of being afraid).

And I copped out at the end of the summer. Rather than see if I would get an offer for a job, I feared beyond words not getting one. Somehow, not getting an offer would be my own scarlet letter forever branding me a failure. So I wrote the firm a letter saying I had decided not to pursue a career in law and sent it the last day of the summer program. This was not exactly the thing to do. You were to wait and get the letter and then could choose to politely refuse or accept if offered a job or suffer in silence if you didn't. But I was unwilling to "not be asked out" so I said no first.

Looking back I cringe a bit when I think of the hiring partner who took a chance on me. To be hired, you were to have been in the top ten percent of your class, and I was in the top fifteen. But I had the extra degree in journalism, and a strong interview, made possible by the law school's placement services and their video taped practices. At the time I was writing my letter, I hadn't thought about the fact he went out on a limb a bit for me and my letter might make him less apt to take a risk on someone else out of the exact hiring parameters in the future. Fear doesn't make you real sensitive to the others' situations.

Twenty years later, I have seen that everyone has some fears. My friends include a trademark attorney, a patent attorney, several stay-at-home moms, a CFO, a doctor, and others. And each has admitted there are times they simply don't know the answer and they just have to go with their gut and hope for the best. The moms hope they don't screw up their kids and the others fear being sued or losing their jobs. My brother, who took over the family business, admits he sometimes worries he's going to run the place into the ground, despite working 12 hours a day and having been in the concrete business since he was about eight years old.

Somewhere along the way, I realized my professors at Stanford and my husband's clients, including many multi-millionaires, still fear screwing up, losing face or money or being proved wrong. One recently had his company written up in a scathing review that will take some time to recover from.

But here's the thing. These people all felt and still feel the fear, BUT THEY DO IT ANYWAY! And that's why they are able to raise a family or a million dollars from venture investors. One of the successful entrepreneurs said his greatest fear was his company failing and not being able to pay back investors, which included friends and family.

So Nike and I are both saying, "Just Do It!" That's my message to myself and to those of you starting a business or writing a book or starting in on any other big goal this year. Yes you may fail, you probably will at least for awhile. You may even look the occasional buffoon. People around you may tell you your idea is crazy, but what the heck. Don't let stage fright, skittishness, qualms, heebie-jeebies or nerves keep you from taking chances. So what if you look a little foolish at points? You will be out there living.

And the simple straight-out fact is we will all, in time, hear the death rattle. That's not negotiable. While I suppose it is conceivable as your hearse goes rolling down the road someone could be snickering, "Oh my GAWD did you hear about when she......" it won't matter. Your body will be safely cocooned in a silk cushioned coffin or a beautiful jar of ashes and your spirit (newly nick-named by the angels "The Lionhearted") passing onto the other side will at long last be impervious to such whisperings. You will just smile and wink, and in the puff of wind whipping around the funeral attendees, you'll be hallooing, "That's nothin' baby, you won't believe what my next big plan is...."

Best wishes! Eileen


  1. You are kidding! I thought it was just me that had that fear! I always thought I would screw up somehow. When I did the "screwup" was the best thing that ever happened to me! But I didn't know that all those other confident-looking people are also afraid of screwing up! Thanks for the article.

  2. Jill, It's soooooo true. Thanks for your comment. Eileen