by Kelsey Alpaio
March 05, 2021
My list of fears is pretty extensive. Most notably, I’m afraid of bugs, serial killers, and blimps.
For the most part, these fears have kept me safe throughout my life. They’ve taught me to always check for ticks after a hike, consistently lock my door at night, and to never, under any circumstances, board a helium-filled airship.
But my fears have also often held me back — especially at work. I think about how I’ve never negotiated a job offer, all of the times I’ve hesitated to disagree with my boss, and the many networking events I’ve spent sipping coffee in the corner.
I can’t help but wonder: What have I missed out on by letting these fears get in my way? Could I have been making much more money if I hadn’t been worried about offending the hiring manager? Which valuable ideas got left behind because I couldn’t find the courage to speak up? Who could I have connected with at that networking event if hadn’t been too afraid to introduce myself?
Odds are, you’ve asked yourself these same questions. And according to The New York Times bestselling author Luvvie Ajayi Jones, fear is a default for a lot of people, and that’s totally normal.
In her new book, Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual, Ajayi Jones’ message to all of us is clear: Being afraid is okay, but letting fear dictate the rules is not. So how do we stop letting fear run the show? To understand this better, I sat down with Ajayi Jones to talk about fear in the workplace and how to be less afraid of speaking up, asking for what you want, and being yourself at work.
I’m going to start by admitting a little something about myself: I am constantly afraid of everything, especially at work. I’m afraid of saying no, negotiating a raise, connecting with new and influential people… Is it typical to feel this way?
I think for a lot of people, fear is a default. It’s one of the most universal emotions, though we don’t talk about it enough, and it is natural for you to be afraid. The emotion we feel when we see the fire is the same feeling we have when we need to have a tough conversation with a friend or a boss. It keeps us safe. Fear keeps us from jumping off a cliff without a parachute. But it also keeps us from telling our friends that they hurt our feelings or saying yes to opportunities that come to us because we’re afraid we might not measure up.
I wrote Professional Troublemaker because I wanted to address the idea that we won’t stop being scared in this world. We won’t wake up one day and be like, “Oh my God, I am brave, and nothing is going to cause me anxiety today.” Instead, we have to say, “Okay, how do we deal with this feeling that’s always going to be there? How do we move forward regardless?”
So, fear isn’t something that you really overcome or grow out of? You just have to change your reaction to it?
Yes. We all have to realize that fear is not this big “boogeyman.” It doesn’t make you weak. We tend to give fear a lot of power in our lives, and we let it stop us from doing what we’re supposed to do, saying what we’re supposed to say, and from being who we’re supposed to be.
Life will always present us with new things to be afraid of. We might stop being afraid of one thing, but there’ll be something new tomorrow. For example, you may be afraid to speak your mind at work when you’re just starting out, but eventually, you’ll become more comfortable with it. But then, you might constantly be afraid of getting laid off.
We just have to normalize the idea of fear. We have to stop giving fear that power. And you do that by saying, “I’m afraid, but I’m going to do this thing anyway.”
Even someone like me who is bold, who shows up in the world as herself — I’m sure people assume I’m fearless. But I’m not. I made an intentional decision to always do the thing that I feel compelled to do, no matter if I feel scared about it.
One of the things that I’m most afraid of is asking for what I want, which seems like a totally absurd fear when I say it out loud. But it’s true! Can you share some advice about how to deal with that fear?
Saying your fears out loud helps a lot. Like you just said, hearing that you’re afraid of asking for what you want out loud makes you feel silly. We end up building and creating monsters of our fears in our heads. But if you write down your fears, put them on paper — you’ll see how small they really are.
Say you want to ask for a raise. Write down the worst and best-case scenario of asking for it. The best-case scenario is that you will ask, they will say yes, and you actually get the raise. The worst-case scenario is that you don’t get your raise. Then ask yourself: “If that worst-case scenario happened, can I handle it? Can I deal with it, or will it be catastrophic for my life?” If it will be catastrophic for your life, then okay, maybe don’t do it. But not everything will be catastrophic.
In this case, by not asking for the raise you’re instantly choosing the worst-case scenario. We spend a lot of time opting out of that best-case scenario because we’re afraid.
Does fear show up differently in the workplace for women, especially women of color and those with marginalized identities?
I think women and women of color, we have extra fears: Fear of not being considered good enough, fear of being rejected, fear of hearing the “no.” So we don’t ask for the raise, we don’t negotiate, we don’t go for the job. We see the first offer and we take it, because we assume somebody’s doing us a favor instead of thinking about how, actually, that company needs you. They hired you because they need your work, value, experience, and skills. You’re doing them a favor.
A lot of my friends work in human resources and they constantly tell me that men will come in, ask for double the salary when they’re offered the job, and end up getting somewhere in the middle. Women will see the offer letter and say “yes” in three minutes. We need to start asking for more as a form of economic justice.
People are often afraid to speak up at work. They may be reluctant to call out a biased comment or disagree with their boss. How can we be less afraid of speaking up?
Here’s the thing: We can’t live for the validation of others. We often choose not to speak up because we’re afraid of repelling those three or four people who won’t agree with our idea, but we forget about the 25 people who will love what we have to say. We have to remove ourselves from the expectation that everything we say and how we come across will be palatable to everybody.
I realized that to be an authentic person, I am going to have certain opinions and values, and people who don’t have those values will be repelled by me. So, I created a series of questions that I ask myself when it’s time to say or do something difficult to ensure that I am not being impulsive and that I’m being thoughtful. When I ask myself these three questions, if the answer is yes to all three, I say whatever I need to say and just let the chips fall. The questions are:
1. Do I actually mean it? Or do I just want to hear my own voice or be a contrarian?
2. Can I defend it? If I’m challenged on it, or if I’m asked to provide proof of where I got this idea or thought from, can I actually stand for it?
3. Can I say it thoughtfully? It’s not guaranteed that everybody will love what I have to say. So can I say it as thoughtfully as possible?
You mentioned authenticity. Being your authentic self is easier said than done. And for a lot of people, especially those with marginalized identities, being authentic at work can be an act of courage within itself. What advice do you have about overcoming the fear of being your true self at work?
I think it helps to understand that bringing your full self to work is actually a really good business decision because you’ll have the energy to put towards the work itself, instead of putting your energy into being a representative of who someone else wants you to be.
My best piece of advice is: Bring yourself to work and then be excellent. Show that your work is going to bring value, whether or not it comes with blue hair or braids, a sweatshirt or button-up. I think it’s really important to show that excellence is not tied to the external packaging of it all.
But the onus to be your authentic self isn’t just on you. I think on a practical level, corporations have to start giving their employees permission to be themselves, to speak in the way they usually speak. Diversity of thought, expression, and tone is necessary. Creativity and great work come when people are true to themselves. Because what makes their work good is whatever perspective they bring to it.
Can you share a time where you let fear get the best of you? What did you do?
My TED Talk, “Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable,” currently has 5 million views. But originally, I turned down the opportunity to speak — twice. I was afraid that I wasn’t ready to take that stage. It was this amazing opportunity being presented to me. And I kept on saying no, saying I was busy because I was afraid.
Three weeks before TED, I realized I was free, and I wanted to go see my friends speak at the event. So I asked the organizers for a pass to go watch and they said, “Well if you can come, we want you to speak.” I was about to send them a third refusal when I called one of my friends and said, “They want me to do this TED Talk. It’s three weeks away and I’ll have to come up with a whole new talk. Everybody else who’s talking at TED has had a coach for the last four months. They’ve rehearsed their talk 1,000 times. They know it in and out.” And my friend said, “You’re gonna kill it. Your job — your nine-year speaking career — has been your practice. You’re good. You got this. I need you to get off my phone and go write your talk.” She left me no choice. But in that moment, I realized that I had let fear control how I dealt with that situation completely.
I did the talk, and it changed my life. Imagine if I had not done that TED Talk. The thousands of emails I’ve gotten from people around the world saying it had an impact on them — I wouldn’t have gotten those emails. I still get speaking engagements because of that TED Talk. It shifted my idea of what my commitment needs to be to myself, that I should not ever make a decision from a place of fear. That story, for me, is a constant reminder, that when I move with fear, I lose.