If you want a bigger job but haven’t gone after it, or you dream of doing something entirely different but have stayed put, you’re not a coward. You’re only human. Fear is a protective mechanism, and whether it’s a fear of lions or the fear of failure, “it can feel so real we think we’re going to die,” says Vanessa Loder, a former investment banker who is now an executive coach, founder and CEO of Akoya Power and co-founder of Mindfulness Based Achievement. Here’s how to free yourself from the fear that’s holding you back from jumping, leapfrogging or otherwise bounding after your dreams.
A Typical Long Lead-Up to Leaping
By Loder’s count, she had three opportunities to follow her heart—and blew them. The first was after college when she didn’t join the Peace Corps but went to Wall Street instead. Her second chance came two years later when her mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After taking care of her mother and reflecting on life, Loder went to Ghana to teach. But in the end, she got back into step with her colleagues and headed to Stanford business school.
Her third opportunity to take a leap was when she finished her MBA. She felt the urge to do something entrepreneurial, but again she talked herself into doing the “responsible thing” and took a job in private equity so she could pay off her school debt. She became financially successful, got married and as she puts it, “everything on paper was perfect.”
But, she says, “I felt lost and unfulfilled. I had climbed up the ladder only to realize that, crap, it was the wrong ladder.”
Jumping Before You’re Pushed
After extensive soul-searching and with the support of her husband, Loder was able to take the flying leap of leaving her high-finance job. “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. But she did it because Type A overachiever that she is, she wanted to do it her way, on her terms, rather than wait for circumstances—like burnout—to force her hand. “There were a lot of tears, doubt and challenging moments, but I have not regretted my decision for a single second,” Loder adds.
5 Steps to Flying
Since then, Loder has discovered her passion and life’s work: Helping other high achievers like herself “to learn how to lean in without burning out and lead purposeful professional lives while creating time for themselves,” she says. Here’s how to get started and prepare for your big leap of faith:
1. Be clear on your values.
What is important to you as opposed to what do you think you “should” do? They may be the same thing in your mind after years of giving into society’s pressures and meeting its expectations. “But to align your life with your values, you need to know what those values are,” Loder says. To help you identify them, complete this Values Assessment Tool—and then look at the way your life choices line up with them.
2. Practice mindfulness.
It’s easy to let the current of life carry you away from your authentic self and dreams. Being mindful and living in the moment on a daily basis will help fix you to the present so you don’t get lost—and connect you with your intuition. “Being mindful can mean simply noticing when you’re stuck in a negative pattern of thought and choosing to play another record in your mind,” Loder explains. “We have more choices once we notice our patterns of thought—that’s what meditation can help us do.” If you’re new to it, try using guided meditations and committing to a practice for a specific length of time. Sign up for Loder’s free 30-day meditation challenge and receive 5-minute guided mediations via email every day for a month.
3. Tap into the power of visualization.
In a study of basketball players, one hour of visualization—seeing the images of what you want in your mind—was equal to seven hours of practice. “It’s a powerful tool for connecting your conscious and subconscious,” Loder says. In addition to imagining yourself, say, occupying the corner office or opening a restaurant, she recommends solidifying your vision by adding pictures and images of your dreams to a “goal board”, and looking at it as often as possible. “You can even take a picture of your goal board and save it as the screenshot on your phone so you see it all the time,” Loder says.
4. Be self-compassionate.
“The old me thought I had to push myself hard in order to achieve,” Loder says. “But I’ve learned that actually the kinder I am to myself, the greater my willpower and the more I can do.” Likewise, if you’re more forgiving of your mistakes and weaknesses, you may be more willing to step out of your comfort zone and take on risks. Start practicing self-compassion every time you feel bad about yourself. “Say to yourself what you’d say to a friend, like ‘I’m not alone, I’m doing my best, I’m only human,’” Loder advises.
5. Get used to acting on your gut feelings.
“If you’ve been following what you think you ‘should’ do your entire life, and you want to take a leap of faith, you need to start by trusting your inner authority instead of those around you. And the key to this is tuning in to your intuition,” Loder explains. “You need to learn to identify that inner voice, listen to it and take action based on what it says.” Start with minor daily acts like eating what you “feel” like eating for breakfast or taking the scenic path, for a change, to work. “Build up to bigger things like inviting someone to coffee because you’re curious to meet her,” Loder adds. After at least four weeks of doing this and the other steps, you’ll be able to trust your heart—and tune out the fear—with much greater ease no matter how big the jump in front of you.
Vanessa Loder will be leading the panel session, “Breaking Through: How to Overcome Fears, Inertia, Gender Bias and Other Obstacles,” at Lead On: Watermark’s Silicon Valley Conference for Women.