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My dad is fond of teasing my mom about how, back when they were in college, she would buy all of her school books, take them home, and immediately flip to the back of each book.
As she glanced through the final chapters of each textbook, she would get more and more anxious. Eventually, fighting back tears, she’d throw her hands up and say, “I don’t understand any of this! I’m never going to make it through these classes.”
My dad would always chuckle and reassure her by saying, “Of course you don’t understand the stuff in the back of the book. That’s why you’re taking this class! So that by the time you get there, you DO know how to do all of it.”
We all laugh about this story now. It’s one of those Thanksgiving-table stories that gets told over and over again.
But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that this story isn’t just a funny family anecdote. It’s actually a great analogy for what most of us do all the time.
We’re all peeking into the “back of the book,” trying to figure out what’s coming and how we’re going to handle it, and getting overwhelmed by everything we don’t know yet.
I’M GUILTY OF THIS
Last week I read a story about school bullying, and later that day I caught myself worrying about how I’m going to handle it if my kids experience bullying.
Mind you, I don’t have kids. In fact, I’m SO far away from being ready to have kids — much less school-aged kids who are old enough to potentially be bullied — that it’s ridiculous for me to be worrying about this now.
And yet, there I was, worrying about kids that don’t even exist yet.
I had to stop and remind myself, “Stop looking in the back of the book, Kristen! You don’t need to know how to handle this right now.”
By the time I do have kids old enough to possibly experience bullying, I’ll be FAR more equipped to handle that situation. I’ll be older and wiser, plus I’ll have years of parenting experience under my belt.
Future Kristen is WAY more qualified to figure this out than Present-Day Kristen is. I really should leave this one to her.
AN IMPOSSIBLE JIGSAW PUZZLE
A client of mine wants to start her own business.
She’s come to me with a few different ideas by now, and every time she gets excited about a new business concept, she immediately skips 20 steps ahead to why it won’t work because she has no idea how to do X, Y, or Z (things she wouldn’t have to do for months or even years down the road).
“I can’t start a bakery because I have no idea how to hire employees and figure out compensation and benefits and all of that. It’s too hard; I should just scrap the idea.”
Or, “I can’t open a coding school for girls because how would I structure it? And where would I host it? And who would I get to teach them? And how much would I charge? I can’t do this.”
I told her that, by trying to figure everything out immediately after having the idea, it was like trying to complete a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. Not only is it not possible — it’s maddening!
She was driving herself crazy trying to answer questions that she couldn’t possibly answer right then. And she kept shutting down great ideas because she didn’t yet have a crystal clear picture of how it would all work out.
I GET WHY SHE DID THIS
On one level, it doesn’t make much sense to skip to the back of the book and fret about things we can’t possibly understand yet. We all logically know that that kind of worrying is useless.
But on a deeper, emotional level, it makes perfect sense why we all do it.
Because the unknown is really scary. And in the face of it, we all want to feel some semblance of solid ground.
My mom was a brand new college student on an unfamiliar campus trying to navigate a new, scarily independent phase of her life. Looking in the back of her textbooks and trying to get a handle on her classes before they even started was her way of trying to regain some small sense of control.
I see parenthood as this amazing, wild, unpredictable adventure where there’s no textbook on how to handle challenging situations. So by trying to figure out what I’ll do in the most complicated moments years in advance, it’s my mind’s way of trying to make parenthood seem less overwhelming.
My client is just as scared of entrepreneurship as she is excited about it (as are most entrepreneurs I know!). So in an attempt to quell her fear of failure, she tries to create a mental 50-page business plan immediately after an idea pops into her mind.
We’re all trying to use “figuring things out” as a balm for our fear of the unknown.
But fear doesn’t go away because you figured everything out in advance. Fear dissolves when you trust yourself enough to figure it out when you get there.
FUTURE YOU HAS GOT THIS ON LOCK
You’re much better off trusting Future You to handle what’s coming. Future You is just as smart and capable as Present-Day You, but with far more information, experience, and resources.
When you start really trusting your future self, the unknown doesn’t seem nearly as scary because you know you’ll be able to handle whatever comes your way.
If you’re having trouble letting go of control in the moment and trusting Future You, here are a few ways to boost your self-trust muscle:
- Collect proof. Compile a list of all the times when you weren’t sure how to do something (or even if you could do it at all), but in the end you figured it out and everything turned out fine. When you can remind yourself that you’ve faced the unknown before and come out unscathed, you build trust in your own resourcefulness.
- Start small. Ask yourself, “What’s something I can do now to help prepare Future Me to be able to handle this situation if/when it happens?” This shifts your energy from trying to plan out every detail of your future to what small step you can take right now to move in the right direction, which is way more manageable.
- Recognize your progress. Think back on yourself 2, 5, or 10 years ago. How much wiser are you than that previous version of yourself? How much have you grown? Now project that forward and consider how much more you’ll have learned and experienced in the next 2, 5, or 10 years. Future You is pretty damn wise! Don’t you want that version of yourself figuring things out on your behalf?
So tell me, what in your life have you been worrying about that you want to let Future You figure out instead? Share with me in the comments!
Kristen (& Rachel)
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL ALSO LOVE
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Side Chat: A mind-blowing, time-bending analogy (October, 2018)
Bonus Book Club! Outrageous Openness by Tosha Silver (November 2018)
Predicting the future (the right way) with Madeleine Joan (December, 2018)
Submit your question for a future episode of Dear Krachel
I just had this idea about starting a notebook for questions I want answers to plus the sort of evidence I’d want to give me confidence to start.
Those blocks to business are pretty common. Intellectually I understand the answers I do find BUT whether I can do what others have done – well, I don’t know. There’s nothing in my Dark Past that seems similar. Where to start? The learning curve looks vertical at this point so it’s easier to quit.
There’s more unknown than known. More fear and effort than desire. More ‘extra classes’ before I can even start – pfft! For every brave soul who hustles for a ‘chance to prove herself and learn the ropes’ there are dozens of us who didn’t come with that certainty or those batteries in the pack.
Are there middle of the bell curve ways to jump the ditches across the path to the realising of ideas?
Hey Andrea — I love your idea of keeping a notebook of things you want to collect positive evidence about. That’s awesome!
Also, it’s perfectly understandable that you’re feeling scared of starting a business with so many unknowns. Trust me, I understand that fear on a very personal level! And I’m usually a pretty risk-averse person who likes stability and predictability (sounds like you might be, too!), which can make the uncertainty of starting a business even scarier.
The key is to take small, bite-sized steps and make sure you have plenty of stability in other areas of your life (your health, your relationships, etc.). Otherwise, you could easily get so overwhelmed that you quit altogether! Also, I wrote a blog a while back about getting over your fear of failure — that might shed more light on this, too.
You don’t have to jump headfirst into the unknown with a blindfold on — you can take small, safe baby steps along the way.
Your post could not be more timely! I just started a new position using a whole new skillset. Some org structure changes have taken my boss in a new direction, leaving me without much/any training. I feel like I’m flying blind, attempting to learn my job while in the trenches. I’m trying not to catastrophize. I know I have a long way to go before I’m where I want to be, but I can look back just three weeks and see how much I’ve learned. It helps to stay in the moment and “do the next right thing.” Any other tips to get me through?
Not who you asked – but I’ve found it helpful to start by making a “Glossary” of all the things I don’t know. Then, I have an immediate, productive direction to take my anxiety. Additionally, if I can’t FIND the resource I want, I can start a document that is the resource I wish I could find, & slowly add my research in as I learn. Finally, those things will be helpful to anyone who comes after me, or they will be useful if someone asks me, “why?” I did something the way I did it; I will have a record of my learning process & my conclusions : ) Cheers
GM- yes, thanks so much! I’ll start doing that. I’ve been keeping a list of questions and asking them whenever there’s an opportunity. A glossary would definitely help for when I can’t find something out via google 😉
Congrats on your new position, Leah! And yeah, being thrown into a new role with little training & direction sounds super overwhelming, although it sounds like you’re handling it as well as anyone could hope to!
I love your suggestion, GM, to make a glossary of things you don’t know/are learning and create resources for things that don’t exist yet. What a win-win — you get the in-depth learning that comes from making something like that, and your team (or future replacement) gets a helpful resource! Such a great idea.
Leah, my only other suggestion is to ask for help whenever possible. Maybe your boss isn’t super accessible at the moment, but is there anyone else you can turn to with questions and/or support? Or even someone who can compassionately listen when you’re having a rough day? Feeling less alone in this new role might make a big difference.
Perfect timing! I am in my fourth year of medical school where we have the chance to experience different specialties and instead of being in the moment and enjoying this time I have been stressing over which specialty I will pick in the future and how I will balance it with other commitments. How can you plan for the future whilst also enjoying the opportunities you have in the present? I find that my anxiety over the future is sucking the fun out of medical school 🙁
Jenny — First of all, kudos for being in your 4th year of medical school! That takes so much work and commitment.
It makes perfect sense that you’re stressing about deciding on your specialty because you don’t want to choose “wrong.” But like you said, when you’re stuck feeling anxious, you can’t settle into the experience and see what actually FEELS good and exciting … which ultimately makes it harder to make a great decision.
As many times as you need to, remind yourself that being in the present, fully experiencing each specialty, and checking in with how you FEEL after each experience is actually the best possible way for you to plan for the future. Imagine that you’re a scientist collecting evidence (with no bias!) so that, once you’re ready to declare an answer, you’ll be fully informed. But you don’t need to make any decision until you have ALL the evidence — Future You has everything she needs to make that decision. Your only job right now is to fully experience everything so Future You has the best possible information. 🙂
Definitely needed the “exercises” to strengthen that self-trust muscle. I really like the idea of collecting proof, since we so often let negative experiences loom larger in our minds than positive ones. I also realized I’ve done the “Start small” step a few times, but I needed to reframe it. Instead of, “OK this is the first of many many steps in a gigantic project that I’m not nearly equipped to handle,” your description of preparing my Future Self, who WILL be able to handle the final stages of the project, is much less terrifying.
You’re right, it’s easy to let negative experiences occupy most of your brain-space, which is why it’s so important to build a case of evidence to prove that you’re fully equipped to handle anything that comes your way. Glad you’re starting to build your self-trust muscle in Future You! 🙂
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