Fear of change can be a powerful, all-consuming force in our lives. It can keep us from pursuing our dreams. It can keep us in a destructive relationship. And fear of change can cause us to make some really bad investing choices.
I had to confront my own fear of change six years ago. At that time I was a partner at a very large law firm. I had worked eight hard years to make partner and had “enjoyed” the fruits of my labor for two years as a partner. And then I quit.
I quit because I was tired of choosing my career over my family. So I took a six figure pay cut and accepted a job that wasn’t nearly as prestigious. It was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done. I kept asking myself–am I nuts for doing this? I went from a corner office to a windowless office literally the size of a broom closet. I went from being the boss to being an absolute nobody. And it was the best career choice I ever made.
The decision taught me a lot about confronting my fears of change. From that experience, I learned 5 steps that can help anybody overcome a debilitating fear of change. Here they are.
Step 1: Recognize the presence of fear in your life: So often we are held back by fear, yet don’t even realize it. Sometimes we rationalize why we are making a certain decision, when deep down we really know that it’s fear that is dictating our choices. If you want to identify fear in your life, ask yourself this question–if I knew that whatever I tried to do would be a success, what choices would I make?
Step 2: Learn to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fear: Not all fear is bad. In fact, healthy fear can protect us from making really bad decisions. I’m afraid of touching a hot stove, and for good reason! The key is to learn to distinguish between healthy fear and unhealthy fear, which takes experience and honesty. Experience teaches us when fear is good or bad. And being honest with ourselves helps us apply our experiences to the new decisions and choices that we confront each day.
Step 3: Thoroughly research and consider your choices: Once you’ve identified a fear that’s holding you back, thorough research of your choices can help alleviate the fear. More importantly, it increases the chances that you’ll make the right decision. It’s worth noting here that we all make mistakes. And some decisions must be made with less than perfect information. But research your options as thoroughly as the circumstances will permit, and you’ll go a long way to overcoming your fear of change.
Step 4: Assume the worst: I had to do this when I left the law firm. I imagined the absolute worst case scenario. For me it was landing in a job I didn’t like, and perhaps ultimately losing my job. While I didn’t like the thought of that, I also didn’t like the thought of not watching my children grow up or having a meaningful relationship with my wife. That made the decision easier. Sometimes we make things look more frightening than they really are, and imagining the worst case scenario can actually take some of the fear out of the decision.
Step 5: Don’t second guess: Once you’ve made a decision, never look back. There’s no point in second guessing your decision; it won’t do any good. You can certainly learn from your mistakes, but that’s different than second guessing. And if you are in a position of leadership, second guessing yourself is a surefire way to becoming an ineffective leader. Analyze your choices, make the best choice you can, and then make it work.
Published or updated March 23, 2012.