Lean In…Against Fear

I’ll preface this by saying I haven’t read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg cover-to-cover, but I know enough to know I have conflicting feelings about it. The book generated a lot of discussions about what it means to be a “career woman,” the tradeoffs and benefits of leaning in at work, if we really can “have it all,” and what the “all” is, anyway.

There are a lot of opinions.

But one thing I feel very strongly about, and there need be no debate, is the need to lean in against ourselves and our own fears. Fear of competence, of confidence, of worthiness, of credibility, of authority, of preparation, of relevance. Leaning in to fight imposter syndrome. Leaning in against usually the loudest and sometimes only voice saying “You can’t do this,” your own.

I’m not talking about leaning in against lack of interest. Maybe you don’t want to be the next CEO or have an amaaaaazing career, and that’s fine, but leaning in against fears related to capability. Self-doubt and that little voice are why I wrote Stop Sabotaging Your Own Success: A Manifesto, something people contact me about, four years later, in that it’s something they consistently revisit (give it a read, it’s a lot more than just my words in there).

If fear is telling you not to lean in, then please, gently and kindly, or loudly, tell fear to F off.

One such example happened recently when a conference I was scheduled to give a talk at in Montenegro asked me to deliver a keynote instead of the shorter session I had planned on. My first instinct was one of flight, and “I can’t.” I actually had a lot of good reasons about why I couldn’t, but when I finally sat myself down, I realized they weren’t really good reasons, they were just excuses, and not that good, either. And the fear liked those excuses because they fit in with and reinforced the narrative of “I can’t.”

Isn’t it strange how you can always find the right excuse at the right time?

So when I finally told fear to F off, and sat down to really look at what it would take to do the keynote, I decided to lean in and do the keynote, despite my initial fear. I think it went well, too, and though no video is currently online, this post sums up some of the main points. And you know what? I had a lot of fun doing it as well. Once I pushed past the fear I let myself embrace the “I have something to say others want to hear” notion and enjoy the process.


Here I am at the end of the keynote, happy and enjoying gifts of Nutella & Plazma from the organizers.

I’m not an expert at leaning in against fear, but I am getting better at it. Here are a few questions I ask myself when trying to understand if it’s real concern I should listen to about my interest / motivation / skills, or just fear:

  • Is this something that I want or is this something others want me to do?
  • Can I learn what I don’t know?
  • Can I get help with the things I don’t know how to do?
  • Can I stop doing something to have more time to make this possible?
  • Is this something that takes me in a direction I want to go?
  • Does extra effort now open the door to other opportunities in the future?

What do you tell fear?

Photo Credit: Igor Milic

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Director of Product Marketing @ HubSpot. Early hire @ Automattic / WordPress.com. Founder World Nutella Day. MBA Alumni Advisory Board @ Santa Clara University.

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