Find joy in the terror of starting something new

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first stepsI cleared my throat to try to get their attention. But with the jackhammer pounding outside the room where I was speaking and someone constantly opening the door, I wasn’t making any progress.

A small group in front of me appeared slightly interested in what I was saying, but others had left the room entirely, striking up conversations with each other, or checking their phones and laptops.

A man glared right in my eyes and crossed his arms, obviously not pleased with what he was hearing. An incredibly pregnant woman stood up in front of me, her belly almost touching mine.

I couldn’t believe that things were going so badly on the first day of my new Backbone class.

And then I woke up.

Those of you who have known me for awhile may be familiar with my legendary performance anxiety dreams. They occur like clockwork right before I am doing something really new, or personally significant, or slightly scary.

Psychologists among you, feel free to analyze my psyche.

I now laugh out loud when I wake up from such a dream, because I know it means I am really in the flow of a new body of work, or a new level of personal growth.

I am scared because I am leaving familiar ground, and taking a chance to learn something new.

It may succeed, and it may fail.

Your new

You might have your own version of my performance anxiety dream when you start to do something new.

What do I mean by trying something new?

  • launching a new website
  • delivering a presentation for the first time
  • starting a new field of study or career
  • writing a new book
  • working in a new way
  • changing an ingrained habit, like overspending, overeating or smoking
  • communicating differently with a spouse or child

This new “thing” can make you feel ungainly, like a wobbly colt trying to stand up right after birth.

Your normal swagger is reduced to a meek shuffle, kind of like my weak delivery of my class in my performance anxiety dream.

In order to not lose your nerve in the early stages of trying something new, it is really important to:

A) Realize that you are doing something new and different and so you will feel strange

B) Protect the early stages of your testing so you don’t curl up in the fetal position on the floor or run back to your comfortable, familiar and very boring old world.

Here is what you need to protect:

  • Your testing process. When you are doing something new, it will not work perfectly the first time. But in order to work out the bugs, you must execute the first time so you have something to tweak and make better. If you wait in the planning stage until everything is perfect, you will never ship.
  • Your ego. If you have been highly competent in your former field or endeavors, you have probably gotten used to smiles and accolades when you perform. Because you are doing something new, this may not happen. Some people might not like your new piece of work. Some people may be annoyed with your registration process, or think your idea is stupid, or resist your new way of communicating. Don’t take it personally because it isn’t about you.
  • Your sense of humor. Trying new things is an adventure that can include a lot of anxiety. The quickest way to reduce anxiety is to laugh. Make sure you do not lose your sense of humor when you are starting something new.

Here is how to protect it:

  • Communicate openly and frequently about the new work you are doing. Let people know what stage it is in. This time around writing a new book, I am talking about it very early in the creative process. This makes me feel open and relaxed, and allows me to experiment with different ideas without feeling like I am being judged on their saleability, or compared with my first book. By the time I get the ideas hammered out and clear, I will feel much more confident to approach my publisher, and the public at large.
  • Practice Radical Acceptance. This is a term I learned about from Amanda Wang in her documentary footage from The Fight Within Us. Amanda has Borderline Personality Disorder, which includes extreme self-doubt as a symptom. Her therapist uses the work of Dr. Marsha Linehan who describes her full approach here. The basic principle is reducing self-judgment, and learning to accept all parts of yourself, even those that you consider unlikeable. The best metaphor I can think of for Radical Acceptance came to me yesterday morning when I was curled around the sleeping body of my 2-year old daughter Angela. My love for her was so complete, and my desire to protect her from harm so fierce, that I finally understood what it was like to love something unconditionally. Do that to yourself.
  • Form your “Oh S**t Team.” Your regular friends and partners may not be sensitive enough to counsel you through starting something new, because they do not realize that feelings of anxiety are amplified in this stage of development. Have you ever had the experience of playing a new song you just wrote, or showing a drawing of a dress you designed, or sharing a piece of writing with someone who said “That’s not half as good as your last one!” They are not members of your Oh S**t Team (OST). True OST members are very gentle with new ideas, because they know that in order to grow and change, they need a safe place to stand for awhile.
  • Pack a soundtrack. You need music that uplifts and inspires you as you get your art out of your brain and into the world. Choose a rocking one.

If you don’t get comfortable with the early stages of starting something new, you can become like those one-hit wonders in the 1980’s who never were brave enough to break out of their small box of success.

Growth is joy.

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38 Responses to “Find joy in the terror of starting something new”

  1. Sy says:

    Brilliant article, thank you it’s exactly what I’ve been
    Looking for, someone to put into words how I’m

  2. […] Find Joy in the Terror of Starting Something New – The terror of firsts is alive and well. We’re all scared of doing something for the first time. You have to get over it and do it anyway. […]

  3. […] Finding Joy in the Terror of Starting Something New – Good advice from Pamela Slim on how to get over your terror and make things happen. […]

  4. Amir Anzur says:

    This reminds me of Christopher Columbus’s story. Very relevant, as the world thought the Earth was flat and yet he was determined to find out and in his journey he came across a new island (or a big one) America.
    If you are not willing to take the risk, how are you going to strike gold?

  5. Monkey says:

    Like you, my anxiety manifests itself at night, although I am fully awake. In my night terrors I fly out of bed and race around, expletives flying. I scream at anyone (unlucky enough to be) around, that the house is on fire, flooding or the roof is about to cave in. Rooms have filled with tar. Floors have buckled. You get the picture. I had one house guest half dressed and ready to run to safety before we both came to our senses.
    And like you, this happens when life presents stressors. However I’ve never thought to look at whether it is because I am outside my comfort zone. Lot’s of work, yes. Big meetings, sure. But is the trigger when I am in periods of self-doubt because I am trying something new? Holy cow. I think you may be on to something.

    I am in the middle of creating something new now; so I think danger is immanent. I’m going to try your techniques to calm my nerves, but in the meantime…I don’t recommend coming for a visit.

  6. cheska says:

    I believe that if you are confident enough that you really can do it, you can! Starting something new is really hard whether work,business or etc. But you just have to believe that you can 🙂 P.S. you might want to check out it’s about 10 successful steps to career change.

  7. Terrific advice! The great terror of the unknown seems to hold most people back from even trying anything new. It is so easy to fall back into something that you are familiar which is safe and non-threating.
    But the rewards of a new venture can be quite rewarding and it can also be a stimulus to try something else.

  8. Brett Henley says:

    Once again I find myself nodding my head and smiling. I couldn’t agree more.

    One process that keeps me on my toes (and refusing to give into fear and self-doubt) is the much greater fear of returning to a life behind a desk, button pushing my way through each and every day.

    I prefer passion over safety any day.

    Thank you Pam.

  9. […] Escape From Cubicle Nation suggests that you remind yourself that since you are going into uncharted waters, it is completely normal for you to feel apprehension, so just remind yourself that any new adventure can and will cause this fear of not knowing the outcome and remind yourself to take a few deep breaths and move forward. […]

  10. Piu says:

    Completely agree with the author regarding this. One feels a strange kind of excitement and nervous energy when doing something impulsive or following passionately one’s dreams.

  11. Robin says:

    Trying desperately to get past the ‘fraidy-cat’ stage! I embrace it, because I recognize it from the hours before a workshop or presentation, true. But when applying that same anxiety to a new venture that uses my well-practiced skill-set, but in a new and very different way, I get n-e-r-v-o-u-s. As I continue to read your book, though, I think of new things that hadn’t occurred to me before, new directions to take ideas, and new ways to present ideas. New stuff = good stuff! 🙂 Thanks, Pam!

  12. Emily Chiu says:

    Pamela – THANK YOU for writing this post… you had me laughing (in complete empathy) from the very title of your blog.

    I came across your site after stumbling upon (and loving) Fred Wilson’s blog post on your idea for XX Combinator. I am a complete news junkie and that was the first article in a while to get me excited enough to comment on a discussion thread / blog.

    As a woman in my late 20’s starting my very first venture (with another woman in her late 20’s), our foray + deep dive into entrepreneurship has been a tremendous (tremendously terrifying, tremendously gratifying, tremendously self-actualizing…) learning experience. And I identified with every single point you made in your article.

    I found it amusing that your tag line is “From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur….” As someone who spent six years in M&A / investment banking / private equity investing / Board Observing and supporting roles to management teams… the transition to being a founder / CEO has been an exciting, but daunting process; I’ve personally found it to be so much easier to be an advisor / investor / critic… than to have to build something from scratch, worry about it all the time, and execute every step of the way.

    It has been a great process — a process of breaking oneself down and building oneself back up, stronger — to make the leap (and the mental / emotional transition) from the familiarity of doing something I knew I was very good at (or at least on a solid path to being very good at) to the complete un-familiarity of doing something in which I had no prior experience, guarantees or pre-existing support networks / models to follow. (Even post-financial crisis, I am hard-pressed to name many 20-30 somethings from financial, not technical, backgrounds who are willing to give up six figure salaries in safe desk jobs to start something from their garage…)

    So it is really nice to read posts like yours. I thought your description of the critical necessity of forming an “oh shit team” is hilarious… and your advice in general is reassuring to hear that everything a first-time founder is experiencing is just par for the course in the world of entrepreneurship.

  13. Fantastic article and some great advice.

    Seize the moment!

  14. I still remember the day I launched my website. I kept arguing with myself about whether or not I should tell my friends about it. I felt embarrassed and scared that they might find the whole thing silly. Eventually, I sent it out to everyone and you wouldn’t believe how amazing I felt. My friends responses were great and they really proved to be a wonderful “oh s**t” team. 🙂

  15. Nermina says:

    I just wanted to thank Pam on a great book that I am reading these days. I heard about it through “Little Pink Book” and I bought it the next day in B&N. At the same time I had a friend from Croatia visiting me here in Chicago and he was curious about what kind of book I bought. He borrowed it for few hours while riding the train around IL and as soon he started reading it he sent me a text message: “She is reading my mind, this book was written for me !!!” Next day he ordered 2 books from B&N, which he took back to Croatia with him to share with his coworkers ! He feels stuck in his corporate job in a country where average monthly salary is $1000 !!!
    You are affecting folks around the world with your book ! I am starting my business for the first time here in USA and I find your book like a “honey for the soul”. Calmes down my anxieties. Thanks Pam !

  16. Natalie A says:

    I must work on properly developing my Oh Sh*t team, or at least dropping those who make me say “Oh, Sh*t” more than, “Thank you!” 🙂 Great post!

  17. Tech Info says:

    Thanks for sharing your views with us. I am also sharing with you something else that health is wealth.

  18. […] I cleared my throat to try to get their attention. But with the jackhammer pounding outside the room where I was speaking and someone constantly opening the door, I wasn’t making any progress.A small group in front of me appeared slightly interested in what I was saying, but others had left the room entirely, striking […] Original post […]

  19. Brenda Mangalore says:

    Thanks for sharing Pam. It’s a great reminder to embrace the terror as a sign of growth and push forward regardless. I know I tend to get paralysed with the overwhelm of change. I’m going to remind myself to protect this new change with the gentleness that a new baby would require.

  20. Elena Verlee says:

    Pam – since we met up in March, except for writing a book I have just about tried all the new things you mentioned. Scared sh**-less most of the time and you know what? The reality was never as bad as the fear. Everything turned out “just the way it was supposed to”. Honestly. Yes, some things didn’t pan out and I discovered later there was a reason. Something better for me was just around the corner. Thanks as always for inspiring us.

  21. […] Pam Slim wrote a great post titled Find joy in the terror of staring something new. […]

  22. […] Pam Slim wrote a great post titled Find joy in the terror of staring something new. […]

  23. Tim says:

    Hi Pam:

    Thanks for sharing this post, I can identify very well. I recently took over as VP of Membership of my Toastmasters club. Yesterday, I had my own “oh sh*t” moment when I was given all of the materials and electronic files from my predecessor. There was a lot of stuff. I felt tremendously overwhelmed and had a few moments of regret that I took on the role. But after some reflection…and reading your post…I realize I’m not the only one having these moments and I’m willing to bet these moments are pretty common. I have a feeling all will be well once I get acclimated and organized. I also have a feeling this recent “oh sh*t moment will be a good learning experience for me. Take care and happy 4th!

  24. David Wang says:

    Haha! I love the idea of an Oh S**t Team (OST). You’re absolutely right-everyone needs one. Any advice on who would make good OSTs for consultants & freelancers? I don’t have many colleagues & sometimes my immediate family doesn’t understand me.

    Thanks also for your list of things to protect. I struggled with my testing process and need constant reminder to laugh at myself 🙂

  25. Kristina says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m taking a leave from my 9-5 to really pursue my dreams and am just starting to have those “don’t go into the woods!” dreams again.

    I used to have a recurring anxiety dream. It started out with me getting on a roller coaster and moving through a House of Horror. As soon as I faced my fear or took action in real life, the dream would go away. I’ve started to face my fears more and more over the years and I’m happy to say that I haven’t dreamt that dream in a very long time. The flying dreams–now those are the best. Especially when you finally realize you can ditch the helicopter and fly on your own!

  26. Janet Foust says:

    Love this article. I think we all have fear around starting something new, but like you said, if you don’t keep moving forward, you will end up as a one hit wonder. We all need an great OST! My family and friends don’t understand and the best advice they can give is go get a JOB! Not what I want to hear.

    Thank you!

  27. […] Find Joy in the Terror of Starting Something New ::  Escape From Cubicle Nation […]

  28. Mimi says:

    I love this post. Fear of leaving our comfort zones has held back more human endeavors than all the oppressive armies in history. And yet, when we do manage to stretch out of those comfort zones, it’s the most exhilarating feeling we can have. And whatever we manage to accomplish at those times, leaves us 1000 times stronger than we were before we started.

  29. Kaye says:

    I’m scared of changing my e-mail, my phone provider, etc…what a hassle! I need
    to and have been putting it off sooooooooooo long because I can’t have things
    get messed up…..Change business cards, letterhead — everything – for 30 years!
    All these wires under the desk – Agh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Not to mention all the work I put off – and then get inspired and a BACKBONE
    by reading your posts!
    Thanks — “Just Do It!”

  30. Naomi Niles says:

    I needed this so very much right at this very moment. How did you know? Thanks, Pam. Yous the bestest. 🙂

  31. Kimmoy says:

    Awesome post Pam! I keep noticing the pattern of me trying something new – it’s hard for me to finish and I always feel alone. I get to a point where I’m almost tired of being a “leader” and wish I had support to see something through. I also forget that I’m testing the process out, it’s not a full blown committment so I shouldn’t be disappointed.

    Thanks for another insightful article and kudos for doing something new! How did I miss this course? Oy!

  32. As someone who has been my coach, you know very well how hard it has been for me to start new projects (albeit my great enthusiasm). I love how you address the emotional aspect of starting something new…it is plain scary and you feel like you have so much to loose if you do it wrong. Thanks Pam for a very well articulate post on starting something new! Love it!


  33. Hi Pam,

    Super post.

    I’ve been encouraging myself to do scary things for quite some time. It makes for a kick-ass life! I used to be terrified of speaking in front of a group — even raising my hand to speak sitting down in a college class.

    So, I “made” myself sign-up for speech class after speech class until what became scary was trying to follow my own act! My teacher gave me such fabulous intros I had to stretch my imagination to live into them. Now, I’ve moved onto scarier speaking venues like getting up to change or stop zoning or speak at town or other political meetings.

    Honestly, I can’t think of a speaking venue that would scare me anymore!

    Follow the terror into the new … Thx. Giulietta

  34. Hey Pam,

    I’m gonna jump at the opportunity to do some analysis:

    The thing about the unconscious mind is that it treats negative emotions (like “fear”) as action signals. It’s our conscious mind (and culture) to some extent, that has conditioned us to believe that feeling “bad” is actually a negative thing.

    So when you start dreaming about Fear (or “performance anxiety”), it’s a pretty clear message that “there is an event coming up which you need to prepare for”.

    The fact that these imagined failures are occurring in your dreams (rather than in your imagination while awake) is a good sign that, in reality, you’re well prepared to face the challenges ahead. The dreams are most likely the last echoes of a old conditioned-response… one that your conscious mind has overcome a while back.

    Whether I’m right or wrong, it’s good to know that your unconscious is just trying to look out for you by making sure you know to “prepare” for challenge. 🙂

  35. Ronda Wasser says:

    Pam – Yikes! Were you camped out in my brain?

    Or is this just more synchronicity of the universe? You are so in tune….

    Hurray for your new course! Wow!! What a brilliant manifestation of a pipeline to flow all your strengths to all our weaknesses. Can’t wait to sign up for the second round. My backbone needs you.

    Until then, posts like these are incredibly helpful to jostle up awareness. And hopefully avoid the pitfalls. I keep thinking “I am too smart to be acting this dumb” 🙂
    All the best,
    Raya aka Ronda Kay

  36. Julie Daley says:

    Pam, I can’t believe the most perfect timing of this post…at least for moi.
    Thank you. You so eloquently speak to all I’ve been feeling. I know all of this, yet it seems to stay just out of reach of my psyche. Seeing it here in black and white just burst the bubble of my oh-so-ingenious ego.

  37. I think this advice is fantastic, Pam! Luckily, I don’t get the performance anxiety nightmares, but I know the “ungainly, like a wobbly colt trying to stand up right after birth” feeling a bit too well right now.

    The only thing I feel the need to add is to let people know that sometimes you will fail. Want success, wish for it, and believe that your going to achieve it, because that’s the frame of mind you need to succeed. Just know that on the off-chance that you DO fail (Everyone does sometimes. I have failed many more times than I’d like to admit) the best thing to do is to learn from your mistakes and start again. It’s easier to bounce back from a bad performance than most would think.

    Good luck with your new endeavor, Pam, and thank you for helping us with ours!