Leaning Into Resilience and Self-Confidence

A well repeated sign at Facebook: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

In her new book, Learning In, One of Sheryl Sandberg’s key points is the limitation of fear.

Career management is a risky business. People can do things that make them look incompetent, they can alienate power brokers, they can even lose their jobs. On a more personal level, people may dislike them for being overly ambitious, uncaring, pushy, aggressive, stubborn, or obsessed. Dislike can prompt incivility, disrespect, isolation, or abuse.

So fears are not entirely groundless. There is something to them.

Sheryl Sandberg says, “By fighting these fears, women can pursue professional success and personal fulfillment.”

Are fears to be fought? Fighting fears sounds preferable to succumbing to fears or being overwhelmed by fears. Fighting fears signals acknowledging one’s feelings and considering that which strikes fear in one’s heart. Ideally, fighting fears provides a step along the way to neutralizing or overcoming fears.

An important distinction is fear and the object, person, or process that sparks fear. The former is an emotion; the latter is a something else. The link between the two is subjective. Public speaking is terrifying to some people and a relaxing, joyful activity to others. Fear itself has an insidious quality of prompting even more fear.

Fighting fears has a quality of face-to-face combat.

    • One problem with that image is that it focuses on fear. That focus can make the issue seem bigger than it needs to be.

    • A second problem is that the fighting image contains a lot of tension. Although aikido masters maintain relaxation through an encounter, they probably do not think of what they are doing as a fight. And few of us are aikido masters.

    • A third problem is that the stress associated with fighting narrows attention. Overcoming limitations usually requires broadening one’s focus to build new capabilities.

The fundamental point is sound: fulfilling one’s potential requires moving beyond the limitations imposed by fear. However, fear is one of those qualities that are best approached with wisdom. Direct attacks may not be the way to go.

The experience of overcoming fears builds resilience for individuals. It works as well for workgroups when they share the process, strengthening relationships along the way. Over time, a more confident team continues to develop its resiliency.

How have you overcome fear in your career?


  1. Dear Dr. Leiter:

    I consider this post ad hoc, according to the actual situation in my institution. Former directors are coming back and people who had problems with them in other times, has fear.

    Some of them ask me if they should consider leave the institution, and we conclude that this is an opportunity to face the fear with more experience and skills, so they are not defenseless.

    What we’ve learn makes the difference

    1. Heriberto
      Internal tensions within an organization are very unsettling for employees. When the problems arise from people in authority, it becomes more important for employees to share their experiences with one another. People have much more power when working together than when working alone.

      I wish you and your colleagues well in adjusting to these changes.

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