Most business professionals are highly attuned to the pitfalls of risk. Make the wrong calculation, and you lose your job -- or your company. But what’s even more dangerous, argues executive coach and bestselling author Margie Warrell, author of “Stop Playing Safe,” is the refusal to take risks at all. “We can never achieve the success we want from inside our comfort zone. Unless you are willing to become vulnerable to things you are afraid of, you will never create the opportunities you want to achieve what you're capable of doing,” she says.
By playing it safe, we settle into a less-than-thrilling career, while we watch others grab the opportunities we’d love. According to Tara Sophia Mohr, founder of the Playing Big women's leadership program, it’s a common trap, because we are wired to overestimate the size of risks and to underestimate the cost of inaction. Here, four common excuses we use to stay within our safety zone—and how to break out of them.
The Excuse: “I don’t have time to take on more responsibility.”
Lately, your job has been feeling unremarkable, where one day bleeds into the next. You’d love to shake things up – take on some more interesting projects -- but your plate is already overflowing. How does your boss expect you to get ahead when you’re stifled by to-dos? Or, maybe you’ve been toying with switching careers altogether, if only you had the time. “Everyone I meet tells me they are busy. But the question is, ‘What are you so busy with?’” says Warrell, who wrote her first book while she had four children under the age of seven.
We can spend our entire lives being busy with things that won’t lead to the outcomes we want. “There will never be enough time in the day to do everything you want. But, there will always be enough time to do the most important things,” says Warrell. It comes down to having a vision for where you want to go, and prioritizing your time with the things that will help you get there.
How to play big: If you’re trying to get ahead at the office, “enroll your boss in your desire,” says Barbara Stanny, author of “Overcoming Underearning.” Share your vision with your manager. Talk about your strengths and how they can benefit the company. Pitch a few ideas you’d like to work on – ideally, ones that will showcase your talent and that you will enjoy. In the next breath, express concern about your current workload. If your passion projects are aligned with your company’s interests, your boss will want to help clear your plate. Come equipped with solutions for delegating specific responsibilities to junior staff members.
For those looking to pursue projects outside 9-to-5, career coach Julie Shifman, founder and president of Act Three, recommends keeping a time diary to find out where you’re bleeding valuable minutes. After two weeks, look at it and decide: Of all the things you did this week, what could you give up? “Even if you are phenomenally busy, if you make the decision there is something you really want to do, you will be able to find at least a half hour every day to work toward it,” says Warrell.
The Excuse: “I don’t have enough money to pursue my dream.”
Many of us believe we have to choose between financial stability and passion; that somehow the two are mutually exclusive. Maybe you appease yourself by saying, "Sure, my job doesn’t offer much in the way of fulfillment, but it does pay the bills."
"This is almost always an excuse," says Mohr. "You can pursue your calling through your job, or you can do it outside of your job, but there is no excuse for not – in some way, in some hours of the week – pursuing your calling." According to Mohr, doing what you are passionate about for even a few hours a week will bring a tidal wave of energy and happiness into your life. "Waiting until you are 110 percent financially secure before you start living the life you truly want may mean you spend your entire life not living the life you want," says Warrell.
How to play big: "If you look at people who have successfully started businesses, they kept working until the new business was able to support them, so they had income to depend on," says Shifman. For instance, if your dream is to start a jewelry business but you have a lucrative job as a financial advisor, start making jewelry for a few hours every weekend, recommends Mohr. Then, hold sales in your friends’ homes once a month. "Think outside the box about how you can step into your calling right now. If you notice your mind coming up with a bunch of reasons why you can’t do that, then fear – not reality – is holding you back," she says.
The Excuse: “I’m not qualified for a promotion.”
In her game-changing book “Lean In,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg urges women to “grab for leadership roles even if we are only 60 percent certain we have the credentials for that step — because, after all, that is what men do.” While women want to feel 110 percent prepared, “many men will be happy to take it on if they they've got 50 percent of what it takes -- confident that they can learn the rest or just wing it long enough to get through. In the process, they learn vital new skills and competencies that those who stood back miss out on,” explains Warrell. According to Mohr, women are “really bad” at knowing what we are ready or qualified for. “We tend to be more conscious of what we don’t know than of what we do know. This can sometimes get in our way, because we simultaneously overestimate what others know,” she explains.
How to play big: “When opportunities come up, I recommend that women don’t even ask themselves the question, ‘Am I ready for it? Am I qualified?’ Instead, they should ask themselves, ‘Is this opportunity aligned with my dreams for my life and career?’ If the answer is yes, go for it, even if you feel not fully ready yet,” says Mohr. As Sandberg puts it, “It’s your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters.”
The Excuse: “I need to be the best, or it’s not worth it.”
You’ve been cruising along in your career, climbing the rungs and feeling like you’ve got it all figured out. And that’s the problem. You’re no longer feeling challenged. According to Warrell, high-achieving women often start out very strong in their careers: They work hard and enjoy a high level of success by the time they’re in their 30s. But then they hit a self-imposed ceiling. “To go further, you have to be willing to try things you aren't guaranteed to succeed at – and the idea of doing something that you may not be the best at is terrifying,” says Warrell. According to Shifman, failure is life’s most marvelous teacher. Rather than seeing it as an endpoint, consider it a stepping stone to success. After all, how else will you learn new skills? Thomas Edison was said to have failed 10,000 times before he finally got the light bulb right. When asked by a reporter how it felt to fail so many times, he said the bulb was merely an invention with 10,000 steps.
How to play big: “Rather than thinking you have to be the best, focus on giving a new challenge or undertaking your best,” says Warrell. “If I thought I had to be the best writer before I started writing my first book, ‘Find Your Courage,’ I'd never have written anything. I'm not the best writer, but by giving it my best, I was able to write a book that went on to become a bestseller,” she says. A good litmus test for knowing if you’re letting fear get in the way, says Mohr: “If you don’t regularly feel a surge of adrenaline at work because you are leaving your comfort zone, you are playing it too safe. The point, of course, is not to try and do just anything that scares you, but to do the things that are aligned with your dreams for your career – and that feel out of your comfort zone.” Do things that make you gasp on a daily basis.
A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Sophia Mohr. It has been corrected to Margie Warrell.
You might also like: