Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 5.09.31 pmFrom the Desk of Nick Mills

Whenever you’re faced with something new, it can be daunting. If you don’t have some strategies in place to counterbalance your anxiety, you might find that your fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Below is the story of Andy, an inexperienced young lawyer who landed his dream job and then began to doubt himself. Follow how he deliberately takes control and becomes the lawyer he was destined to be.


Andy the young lawyer….

Andy is a young lawyer in his first real job out of university. He was fortunate enough to get an offer from a top tier law firm immediately upon graduation. When the offer was made, Andy could hardly believe his luck and accepted without much thought. He began with hope, a bit of fear, but mostly optimism.

After the initial period, weeks filled with learning names and becoming acquainted with organisational processes and procedures, everyone assumed Andy was up to speed and should be ‘getting on with it’. From Andy’s point-of-view, however, nothing was further from the truth. He was overwhelmed. The pace was nothing like what he’d been accustomed to at university — which was gruelling enough, but which followed a different rhythm. Here he was expected to know things off the top of his head and have opinions about which approach to take on various legal matters. He was worried about asking too many questions, afraid of underscoring his inexperience.  The hours alone made it very difficult for him to regenerate outside of work.

One day, he sat at his desk stunned as a partner popped his head in and asked for a a case outline that Andy had somehow missed in his inbox. He mumbled something in the affirmative and turned to the outline, but his mind was blank. He sat there paralysed; unable to think or move.

We’ve all been in a similar position at one time or another — doubting our abilities, nervous about how we are seen by others, afraid to make a mistake. And it usually happens when it matters the most. In Andy’s case, being hired by this prestigious law firm was the culmination of years of study and planning and dreaming about his future success as a lawyer.  So what should Andy do in that moment? The partner is expecting finished work of good quality, but Andy is so panicked, he can’t think straight.  Here are six basic things that Andy needs to focus on to get back to his usual, competent, confident self.

The limbic brain hijack – And what to do about it!

The first thing to understand is that Andy is caught in what is called a limbic ‘hijack’. The emotional centres of his brain have taken over. This is what is commonly referred to as the fight-flight-freeze reaction. In that moment, Andy couldn’t really fight, nor could he flee (as much as he wanted to). All that was left was to freeze, which is what he did.  Here he is dealing with a massive biological reaction to stress that the brain causes as a way of preserving him.  Unfortunately, it seemed like the opposite.

The only way out of a limbic hijack is to reset your brain. Once the fight-flight-freeze reaction is initiated, the brain is flooded with cortisol — also known as the stress hormone. It takes a while to settle down. The best thing to do is to move away from the upsetting situation for a minute or two. Take a walk around the block or, if you can’t be seen to leave your work area, walk to a window or to the restroom. If you are able, stretch a little. Breathe deeply — a series of long, slow breaths. You want to change the brain chemistry by dissipating some of the cortisol, and you do this by moving.

This doesn’t have to take long — really just a couple of minutes is all.  It might seem like a cliché, but breathing deeply actually works.  When our boss asks us to do something we consider unreasonable or outside of our skill set we automatically begin breathing faster, reducing the amount of oxygen that gets to our brain.  Essentially, we make ourselves dumber (temporarily!).

Get some perspective here… 

What Andy was forgetting is that there were over 250 applications for his position and he was the one who was selected. His supervisors had faith in his abilities. Another thing he wasn’t considering is that every last one of the lawyers at the firm were once sitting there exactly as he was — overwhelmed and under confidant.

So in this situation, once you’ve managed to calm down, it’s a good idea to think of the positives and to acknowledge past situations in which you might have been similarly overwhelmed. Think of the ways you were able to overcome past challenges. This isn’t your first rodeo and it isn’t theirs. You have a lot more experience than you’re giving yourself credit for.

A trick from the animal kingdom

When animals feel threatened, what do they do? Cats arch their backs and fluff their fur. Cobras rise up and expand their hood. Dogs assume a muscular posture and their hackles raise.

Making themselves bigger like this has a dual effect. First, it makes them appear fiercer, stronger, and more capable to their adversaries. The posture they are taking is known as a power pose. And it works for people too.

If Andy simply stood for a moment or two with his arms akimbo, his brain chemistry would change — testosterone and cortisol levels would properly align — and he would quickly feel up to the task at hand. He could also spread out in his work space (making himself larger), which would also have the effect of giving him more confidence.

There is a fantastic TEDTalk by Amy Cuddy called “Your body language shapes who you are” in which she discusses this phenomenon and how utilising your body language can set you up for success.

Chunking or — as it is sometimes called, do a bit at a time

Once Andy regained control of his brain and tricked himself into feeling more confident, he was then in position to take stock. He could make a list of what needs to be done, rearrange items in order of priority, possibly assigning how much time to spend on each task, and giving a work count (if that’s relevant).

This is known as chunking, which is another word for breaking things down, qualifying, and quantifying accordingly. Looking at an overwhelming task in smaller parts can make it much less daunting. The other thing that will emerge is a plan of action. Certain items will need to be done before others. Order will arise.

Go ahead — ask for help, take some notes.  Stop being a hero!

Inevitably, there are things Andy can’t know. He’s new at this and he will need guidance. But once he managed to calm down, regained some confidence and focus, and really examined the task at hand, he’s ready to ask for clarification.

On this day, Andy felt especially intimidated and really wanted to be seen as doing well. The idea of going to the partner and asking questions almost sent him back into the limbic hijack. He took a deep breath, formulated the essential questions. In the end, the partner was impressed. He had been a little nervous hoisting this on the newest, youngest staff member, but when Andy brought him questions that were intelligent and focused, he felt renewed confidence in having hired him.

We are social creatures, and we get a lot from the exchanges we have with others. But if Andy had gone to the partner prematurely in a panicked state without having formulated his questions in advance, the outcome might have been quite different. The partner might be left doubting his choice to hire Andy.

Self talk – The little ‘Andy’ inside his head (and inside yours) that tells you how hopeless you are

Of course, the complex nature of the work meant that Andy was faced with many such days as the months rolled on, but as he grew more experienced, he also developed a strong degree of resilience. He was able to say to himself: Even though I haven’t done this particular task before, I have faced other challenges and managed to do pretty well. I believe in myself. I know I’m up to the task.

Sometimes you need to override the voice inside your head which is negative (which by the way, your brain does to you in its feeble attempt to keep you safe, but mostly has the opposite effect).

… and how he gained confidence

So, to sum up, here are the tips:

  1. Your emotional brain (the limbic brain) will always overtake your thinking brain at the worst possible moment, that is its job.  Don’t fight biology, leverage it.
  2. Get some perspective here.  There is a well-known company that makes boxes, and a common expression at that organisation is ‘no-one ever died by not buying a box’. Which means, what you’re dealing with is far less important than you think it is
  3. Puff yourself up and get some attitude, dude.  That’s the only way you’ll get through this.  You can do it.
  4. And while we are on the subject, do it. But do it one piece at a time. Your focus will be better, your concentration will be better and your work will be better.
  5. Stop being a hero.  Take notes, ask questions, clarify. Showing your vulnerability doesn’t mean you are showing your incompetence.  You are a human being.  So is your boss, believe it or not.
  6. Master your self talk.  80 to 90% of your self talk is not that helpful. Pay attention to it, and find ways to slap yourself out of it.