career fear

When I decided to leave my six-figure executive position in HR and recruiting back in 2001, a lot of my colleagues thought I was crazy. Especially, when I announced I was going to become a career coach. I recall one friend from college saying, “You aren’t going to start teaching all that new age hoey stuff, are you?” Not kidding. He really said that.

For the first year, people made fun of my decision.

When I met up with colleagues at events, some would make wise cracks like, “Are you going to fix all the unemployables?” Or, “Is this some kind of career crisis? When are you coming back to the real world?” It was hard to be made fun of. The backhanded compliments always bothered me the most. “I commend you. You’re so brave. I couldn’t possibly walk away from a safe and secure job to follow a blind passion like you did.” But, through my own training and career evolution, I understood something they didn’t. This was their way of dismissing a deep, dark career fear they weren’t ready to discuss. Because nobody wants to talk about it. Until they do.

The biggest career fear is driven by ego, masked as self-preservation.

About a year after I was set up in private practice as a career coach, something interesting started to happen. Those same people that joked about my new profession started calling and emailing me in secret. They would say something like,

“I’m reaching out to you in strict confidence. What I share with you is confidential, right? I’d like to have a conversation with you about my career. Let me tell you my story….”

Forget that fact the very people who made fun of me were now asking to work with me. What I want you to focus on is that last part. The part where they wanted to share the unique details of their careers. THIS is what’s driving most people’s biggest career fear. It’s the career narrative in their heads. The very career story they wrote, directed, and currently star in.

“Am I making a huge mistake and I just haven’t realized it yet?”

Their deep dark fear is that, somehow, they’ve unknowingly made a mistake on their career journey. As a result, they want me to A) listen to it, B) find the part that needed fixing, and C) help them fix it so they can feel certain their career is on track and safe. Make no mistake, our human egos fuel this behavior. None of us wants to wake up one day, look back, and say, “Dang. I should have realized I was on the wrong path. Now I’m stuck.” It’s the fear of humiliation and judgement. The realization that others might see us as a failure. Today, preserving our reputation is the end-game. Figuring out how to be satisfied and happy without looking like a crazy person is goal. But, where did this come from? Why do we care that much?

4 words are the reason we have this career fear.

There’s a question we all get asked pretty regularly. From a very early age, we’re taught to ask it. It’s meant to be a polite conversation-starter. However, its real purpose is to help us get people to reveal information about themselves so we can evaluate whether or not we want to trust them. As humans, trust is key. We are tribal by nature. We want to make good choices about who we let in our inner circle. We want to attract people to our network that help us, not hurt us. We also know we can’t let everyone into our tribe. So, we need a way to weed out those that won’t serve us best. The question we use to guide us in this effort is:

“What do you do?”

And, it’s why so many people are living in fear their career isn’t good enough. The obsession with answering that question in a way that earns trust and respect has become epidemic. We know if we use it to judge others, then they are using it to judge us. The worst part? How good your answer is can change overnight. Let me give you an example…

Yesterday’s darling is today’s fool.

Think of jobs that were hot at one time and are now completely outdated. The people that did those jobs spent years of their lives becoming the best at what they did, only to be looked at today as ignorant for not seeing the writing on the wall. Or, what about companies that are called, “hot” one week only to be outed as, “hot messes” the next. The people that worked for those organizations were paper millionnaires one day and seen as top talent, only to be broke the next day and seen as sub-par the next. At least, that’s how they (and everyone else) interpreted the events in their minds. Which leads to my point about this career fear…

Focus on impressing the right audience & this fear will evaporate (for good).

I believe we’re coming into a pivotal time in our society. There’s massive mental disruption going on. People are taking a step back and challenging some of the most common (outdated!) beliefs around career growth. More and more people are starting to realize it’s time to focus on answering the question, “What do you do?” in a way that impresses only one person: themselves. This fundamental change will help people stop wrapping up so much of their identities into what others think of their work. It will also help them re-write the career stories in their heads in a way that serves them better. Once you realize there are no career mistakes, just opportunities to learn and grow, the power to build a career that makes you feel happy and satisfied gets much stronger.

Originally published on