Your fear of “looking stupid” is holding you back

When I came across this photo on Instagram by @businesschicks, my heart leapt out of my chest. It perfectly, if boldly, described the line so many of my clients toe.

I am privileged to coach some of the highest achievers in the country — Type As who expect massive feats from themselves, professionals whose impressive performances yield accomplishment after accomplishment and bigger and bigger accolades and responsibilities at work and in life.

But yet… underneath all of that achievement is often a fear of looking stupid. If “looking stupid” doesn’t resonate with you, it can come in many different forms:

  • It can feel like fear of failure — of trying something new and not being as good at it as you’ve been at other things.

  • It can feel like worry — that any small failure will mean that you yourself are a failure.

  • It can feel like the constant gripping anxiety of perfectionism.

  • It can feel like a distaste for newness, knowing that your comfort zone is also the place where your performance is highest.

If these statements are starting to resonate with you, you may have what Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, calls a fixed mindset — the mindset of someone who fears failure because you see it as a test of your capabilities/intelligence. You worry that failure will reflect negatively on how others perceive you.

Dr. Dweck did a number of studies with school-aged children with fixed mindsets. She asked them what they’d do next time after failing a test. In one study, they said they’d “cheat next time instead of studying more!” In another, they said they’d “find someone who did worse so they can feel better.” In many studies, she found these children with fixed mindsets would simply run from difficulty. They all hold themselves back from challenge because they’re “gripped by the tyranny” of their fixed mindset.

The opposite of a fixed mindset, according to Dweck, is a growth mindset — one in which we are not only OK with failure, but we also embrace failures and actually gravitate toward them. This is because when in growth mindset, we see failure not as a test of our capabilities, but instead as a sign of learning and progress. We know that failure doesn’t reflect badly on our intelligence; in fact, we see failure as a positive indication of growth.

A fixed mindset (or, as the above quote bluntly states it, a fear of “looking stupid,”) certainly holds you back. As you avoid failure, you are avoiding challenges that go well beyond your comfort zone. You’re therefore avoiding step-changes in learning and growth.

In a growth mindset, by contrast, you embrace failure as a certain sign of progress, so you can’t wait to try new things — which means you’re constantly outside of your comfort zone. You’re always learning and challenging yourself, and constantly pushing yourself forward.

(*By the way, it’s possible to have a fixed mindset in some arenas and a growth mindset in others.)

So, how to combat a fixed mindset? Here is some tried-and-true advice:

  1. Be aware of where your mindset is fixed. We’re often not attuned to the inner voice in our head, telling us to fight, flight or freeze when a challenge presents itself and we want to run for the hills. We just instinctively react and don’t always understand that reaction. Become more aware of your reactions to determine in which areas of your life have a growth mindset and which are more fixed.
  2. Value the journey above the result. It’s critical to enjoy the process of getting to a goal as much as — if not more than — the achievement of a goal itself. If you struggle with this, work on your sense of presence. An ability to be present, or mindful, helps focus on the here-and-now rather than worrying about future results or on what happened last week. It also helps cultivate more joy in the present moment. Meditation and other mindfulness practices are the best places to start.
  3. Cultivate resilience. Cultivating resiliency is important in shifting from a fixed to a growth mindset. There are myriad resources on the internet and beyond; I recommend checking out the Berkeley Well-Being Institute article on resiliency to start. Key factors in resiliency are awareness of your own emotions; being non-judgmental toward self; and practicing gratitude.
  4. Feel the fear and do it anyway. A big aspect of moving from a growth to a fixed mindset is simply taking on a challenge, feeling the associated fears, and doing it anyway. The muscle memory you cultivate from these experiences will improve your confidence each time and remind you that failures are to be embraced as learning opportunities and be less and less scary each time.
  5. Repeat this mantra: criticism and failure are gifts. Both criticism and failure will happen repeatedly along challenging journeys, and you have a choice about how you see both. Treat them as gifts — ask for feedback, welcome your first failure, learn from it all.

Have you read Dr. Dweck’s book? Let me know what you think in comments below!

P.S. need some support with an area in which you have a suspected fixed mindset, either at work or in life? Head here to schedule a free 20-minute consultation with me. I’d love to help you transition to being failure-loving and get you on your way to your boldest, most authentic dreams.

Haven Coaching