Feeling anxious these days? It’s an understandable sensation when trying to accomplish significant life goals, and starting a business definitely falls into that category. Justin Menkes, author of Better Under Pressure, noted the human urge for unwinding and for being drawn to “the comfort of relaxation rather than to the challenge of discovery.” For a high achiever, anxiety combined with chaotic challenge-seeking can be one’s undoing if left unchecked. The business world is beyond brimming with people anxious over the next project, the next career move, and the next life event.
Very few answers to our worries come to us immediately. Luckily some good books claiming answers are now in bookstores, namely Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change Into Fuel for Success by Thomas J. Delong, Professor of Management Practice in Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Business School. The jargon-free book delivers a helpful read that will give you a sophisticated means to accomplish your tasks with grace and aplomb.
Put the past into the past instead of transferring old perceptions into new situations.
Drawing on his extensive research and consulting work, Delong lays out the leading causes for a dysfunctional loop within a familiar personality type, the high-need-for-achievement professional. That loop can lead to anxiety with a bottomless craving for achievement regardless of personal costs and an entrenched resistance to change.
To bring redemption Delong constructs a framework that prescribes how this anxiety can be managed. He does not sell happy-go-lucky solutions. Instead he weaves research and past experience to come up with useful recommendations. For example, Delong briefly examines the following 11 traits common among driven professionals:
- Being driven to achieve the task
- Failing to differentiate “urgent” from merely “important”
- Having difficulty delegating
- Struggling with producer-to-supervisor transition
- Obsessing about getting the job done at all costs
- Avoiding difficult conversations
- Craving feedback
- Swinging from one mood extreme to another
- Taking only safe risks
- Feeling guilty
In detailing each trait, he covers how its pitfalls can hinder you, such as taking only safe risks:
“Taking safe risks is paradoxical, since high achievers relish seizing opportunistic risks to get ahead, yet they are also risk-averse to the extent that they are fearful of taking a risk and failing. High-achiever types manage the paradox by being both perceptive about risk and selective about risks they take…As long as they only take calculated risks, they can avoid feeling vulnerable.”
Much of the content in Flying Without a Net is well reasoned without belaboring its points. Delong admits his foibles along the way, and notes that we are all vulnerable: “Just because these traits are common…doesn’t mean that they have to derail your career.”
Highlights to help you start soaring
- High achievers fear being wrong, leading to anxiety and to feeling a lack of purpose.
- Anxiety comes from wondering the purpose of tasks, feeling isolation from other people and questioning the significance of self.
- At times high achievers pick up destructive behaviors to relieve anxiety, such as busyness, comparing ourselves to others, blaming others for our frustrations and worry.
- We must adopt behaviors that permit “strength from vulnerability”–recognizing when we transfer busyness into avoidance of human connection, for example.
The anxieties and the four traps are examined in separate chapters; there are also self-examinations that can help you identify where any of these relate to your own situation.
In examining redemptive steps for the high achiever, Delong reveals how anxiety creates compromises in team culture. For example, he uses a personal caution about conditioning people around business, signaling to others that they are not important.
“Organizations are filled with people who will respond like Pavlov’s dog to a ‘you got mail’ signal, an instant message beep, a cell-phone ring. They may rationalize the response, telling themselves it could be the boss with an emergency or a team member who needs their wisdom. But responding in this manner should tell people that who they are both at work and at home is not the individual they could be.”
Another lament centers on the lack of workplace guides who will invest in you rather than a momentary fleeting exchange.
“If you’re under 40, you probably know the formal process of mentoring has deteriorated. Many young professionals use the term ‘free agent’ to describe their lack of connection with their bosses and their organizations; they often feel this way from their very first day on the job. They define work as completing a contract rather than committing to a larger collective.”
These insights make the author’s arguments very convincing. A downside for small business readers is that the scenarios and recommendations can be too linked to corporate settings at times. The chapter on worry, for example, includes a self-assessment which asks questions such as “Do you feel separated from the core of the company and feel like your office is an island?” and “Do you worry you have fallen out of favor with your boss?”
But small business owners are equally susceptible to high-achiever anxiety. Many entrepreneurs come from corporate environments, leaving their functions behind and bringing their psyche with them. Flying Without a Net is most useful for those aspiring professionals contemplating a jailbreak from a bad work environment, and works well for small business leaders seeking to guide teams to be creative, rather than just busy.
Read Flying Without a Net to reassess your ambitions, restore your sensibilities and inspire you to do more than just checking tasks off a list.