How Your Fears Prevent You From Reaching Your Career Potential

By Gerald Walsh ©

For some time, I’ve been curious about why people do not pursue career paths that will make them happy and then end up – at the end of their careers – regretting their choices.

This curiosity became the topic of my recent TEDx talk. When I started doing research for the talk, I quickly came to the conclusion that what holds most people back is FEAR. 

And, in fact, many of you – possibly like your parents – will lead what I call a “fear based career.” Meaning that most of your career choices will be governed by an underlying fear that prevents you from doing what you really want to do.

I talked to several people who told me how fear has held them back.

There’s Lisa, a professional accountant now in her late 30s, who deep down believes she is not worthy of success. Growing up in a rural community in a family that struggled with money and substance abuse, Lisa knew that if she didn’t break away from her family she would end up working at the gas station or convenience store. She went on to obtain her CA designation but still believes that her passing the final exam was a “fluke.” That the marker made a mistake.

Feeling not worthy of success has caused Lisa to not apply for jobs she is qualified for – thinking the company would never hire her anyway. Because she is reluctant to ask for raises, she is making less money than her peers. She’s even reluctant to ask her boss for performance feedback as she’s afraid of what she might hear.

There’s Jim, a marine biologist, who has an irrational fear of being judged particularly when it comes to interviews. His fear goes far beyond the normal level of anxiety most people feel in job interviews. Despite good preparation, his mind is so focused on all the bad things that might happen that he comes across as stiff and unnatural. As a result, Jim leaves a bad impression and is not getting job offers.

There’s Jackie, a seasoned communications specialist, who has always questioned whether she is “smart enough” to be giving advice to people who are “more qualified than her.” Jackie feels this way because she lacks a formal university degree. Her fear has grown so large that she has recently begun to apply for jobs well beneath her experience level because they are “safe.”

There’s Cory, who could not come to terms with being fired from his $200,000 job when his company downsized. Cory’s entire identity and status was so wrapped up in his job that he refused to apply for jobs that paid less than his former job. Not surprisingly, Cory never found a comparable job and over two years burned through his savings. He ended up broke and living in his parents’ basement – at age 50.

There’s Linda, who at times feels powerless in her job whenever her boss acts more aggressively than necessary. This is because it brings back memories of how her father verbally abused her and her siblings when she was young.

There’s Jamie, a human resources director, who feels like an imposter in leadership team meetings and sometimes wonders why she is even there. She has even turned down a promotion to VP of human resources because she didn’t feel she was “quite ready yet.”

Here’s the question I will leave with you today:

What fears hold you back from reaching your career potential?

As you contemplate your answer, I will ask you to remember two things.

First, how you define career potential is totally up to you. You might define it as making a lot of money working for a big company. You might define it as working for a not-for-profit. You might define it as working in a regular 9-5 job where you can leave your worries at the office and spend your evenings and weekends with your family. One definition is not better than the other. But understand that you own the definition – not your parents, teachers, or peers.

Second, the average life expectancy in Canada is 82 years. You don't want to be that person who looks back at their life and has regrets. By the time you’re 82, it’s likely too late to write that book, start that company, or go for that job. Remember, there’s a great temptation to place it safe through life. But in the end you will likely regret the risks you never took.


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Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @@Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn.