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Before the a-ha moment? The oh sh*t moment

Five ways to overcome the fear of failure that often accompanies a big idea

As an entrepreneur, there are many things that wake me in the middle of the night with that sinking feeling of despair and anxiety: Have I paid my payroll taxes? Did I scope the last project correctly? Will I land the next new client?

Few, however, are as universal as the fear of failure that seems to accompany a new strategic project.

So, it is heartening to hear from other strategists, writers and creative professionals over the years that I’m not alone in this rollercoaster combination of excitement and dread. I like to describe it as the “Oh sh*t” moment, as in, “Oh sh*t, I’m not going to make it on this one!”

Big projects = big emotion

I find it most often in the first half of a large engagement, such as helping a client develop a new value proposition, researching a marketing plan, or trying to diagnose the issues that hold back a marketing or sales team.

At this point:

  • The unknowns usually outnumber the knowns
  • There’s an overload of information to sift and process
  • The end product tends to be unclear

It’s a lot to tackle.

Even with decades of marketing experience and confidence in my abilities, I can still struggle with how to push through the gut-level dread that a big project often generates.

Fortunately, the “Oh sh*t” moment eventually gives way to the all-important “A-ha” moment of enlightenment. Yet to get there requires patience, persistence—and trust. Plus, for me, a healthy stash of chocolate and caffeine.

Making it work

Here are a few tried-and-true techniques to move your next big idea from overwhelming to on track.

  • Trust yourself. This is rule number one. Be confident in your own abilities. When doubts surface, remind yourself of past accomplishments, or take a short break to re-energize.
  • Divide and conquer. Make your big idea manageable by dividing the overall project into a series of smaller increments, then tackling them one at a time. Small tasks are much less overwhelming, and crossing them off a list provides a visual progress report.
  • Ask for help. Working in a vacuum can magnify concerns and slow progress. Take time to get feedback from colleagues, brainstorm or discuss sticking points. Simply talking about your challenges can usually generate new solutions.
  • Keep going. Don’t let fears or false starts sidetrack your schedule. Set a timer and work uninterrupted for 30- to 60-minute increments. Avoid over-editing; aim for ideas and forward motion.
  • Celebrate. Whether it’s a good day’s work, a finished task or a completed strategy, appreciate when you make progress. Treat yourself to a reward and savor the feeling of accomplishment.

A final reminder which, as a perfectionist and control freak, has served me well. Don’t let great get in the way of good. In most cases, we are our own worst critics. Strive to communicate clearly and meet your deadline, without adding the stress of absolute perfection to your goals. Passion and accountability tend to carry an idea much further than sweating the small stuff.

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