Risk Taking in Technical Communication

At the recommendation of a friend, this week I took the time to read Feel the Fear…and Do It Anyway! by Susan Jeffers. The book is directed at individuals who are stuck at some point in their life–personal or professional–because of some inner fear(s) and offers  advice for overcoming said fears. I thought I’d go through some of the highlights as I saw them and discuss how they might relate to technical writing (content or careers). Note: My interpretations might differ from the author’s original intent, to which I can only plead guilty. If you want her take on things, I invite you to acquire and read the book for yourself.

What do we fear?

The author lays out various types of fears that most people face:

  • Things that happen to us (aging, natural disasters, etc.).
  • Inner states of mind (helplessness, rejection, success, failure, etc.).
  • “I can’t handle it” (whatever “it” happens to be).

In the end, Jeffers says, the third type of fear is at the root of all the others: faced with X, we fear that we do not have the mental or emotional faculties to respond to whatever difficult or unpleasant situations comes our way. This is not necessarily the case.

Taking on our fears

The counterintuitive way to deal with fears, of course, is to tackle them straight on*:

  • Apply for the job/degree/conference.
  • Give the presentation.
  • Reach out to the customer.
  • Write the draft.

(*Mind you, like Jeffers, I’m not suggesting you go out there and try extreme sports, risky behaviors, or bad habits–this is about taking on larger projects or issues that are of concern to you.)

Jeffers’ comforting advice is that everyone faces fear when confronted with the unknown or the unfamiliar, which is what happens any time we step outside of our comfort zone. So you might as well jump in, right? What she wants her readers to understand is that pushing through the fear of doing something scary is worse than the fear of living in a state of ongoing helplessness, which is what can happen if you let your fears rule you all the time.

Again, this could apply to your work or your personal life. A lot of the fears we let afflict us are the result of early childhood experiences or training and Jeffers indicates that a lot of our fears are the result of bad self-programming. Being wordsmiths, technical writers can understand the impact of words, not just in their work but in their own lives. For example, one fear I’ve heard a lot from some writers is, “I can’t write a first draft about X!” Balderdash! If you’ve somewhat familiar with the content, you can do that.

The way Jeffers puts it is, if you spend your life saying “I can’t do X,” “I should do Y,” or “I hope Z happens,” you’ll be programming yourself for helplessness. To those word choices, Jeffers would offer instead the following alternatives: “I won’t do X,” which is a matter of volition, not ability; “I could do Y,” which again is a matter of choice, but doesn’t have a judgmental quality to it; or “I know Z will happen,” which is a statement of confidence rather than wishful thinking.

How high are the stakes?

One section I found myself underlining quite a bit had the snappy subheading, “Lighten up.” Jeffers puts the matter this way:

We live in a world where most people take themselves and their decisions very seriously. I have news for you. Nothing is that important. Honestly!

Start thinking about yourself as a lifetime student at a large university. Your curriculum is your total relationship with the world you live in, from the moment you’re born to the moment you die. Each experience is a valuable lesson to be learned. If you choose Path A, you will learn one set of lessons. If you choose Path B, you will learn a different set of lessons.

This made an impression on me, and it’s similar to a Nelson Mandela quotation I’ve seen floating around out there on the internet: “I never lose. I either learn or I win.” I hadn’t considered the idea’s application to taking risks, but I suppose it still works.

You could make yourself crazy, for example, fretting about a choice between two challenging job choices. In 2012, I had this choice: Keep working at NASA or go work for a small engineering firm that supports commercial space companies? Either way, you’re likely to be in good shape. In the end, the decision is yours, and you’re likely to learn interesting things regardless of which decision you make. So rather than a learn-win decision–which still sounds like lose-win to some of us–think of any difficult choice as win-win. You will get something out of your choice. And if the decision doesn’t give you the outcome you want, make another decision. One way or another, you’ll learn something important, and regardless of your choice, the important thing to remember is that you can handle it.

Other useful thoughts

One of the last sections I underlined intensively had to do with maintaining an abundance mindset. This involves things like helping others, even at the risk of being taken advantage of or conned. If you choose a mindset that says you believe in a “growing pie,” that you’re willing to give of yourself, and that helping others is a goal in your life, then you don’t fear things like being taken advantage of because that’s what you’re here for. Obviously that can be taken to extremes–you shouldn’t let yourself be used or abused–but on the whole, helping others is something that will benefit you in the long run.

How does this relate to fear?

Jeffers simply reminds the reader that your life is abundant and you count. Think of that as the positive side of her approach to fear. It’s not just a matter of overcoming what holds you back. You need to see yourself and your life as mattering to the world and that you have the ability to go forth and do good things, even if that means making sometimes-scary choices.

I hope this was helpful. Now go out there and do something that scares you!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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One Response to Risk Taking in Technical Communication

  1. Pingback: Positive Self-Talk in the Workplace | Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication

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