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Anxiety and Total Preparation
By Michael Felberbaum   View more articles by this author
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March 25

Let's say you have your first ever sales meeting, and it's coming up in 15 minutes. 

You look at your watch.  15 minutes till go time.  You stretch back in your chair, rubbing your palms on your favorite pants, and you tell yourself: "I've got nothing to worry about.  I'm prepared."  You remind yourself of the training you received, how you spent several hours over the past week reading up on the company, checking out their web site and reviewing some articles about them.   You remember how you talked with an associate from LinkedIn who used to work there, and you recall the conversation you had about the company and thrill you had about getting the "inside scoop."  You tell yourself you did all the right steps.

You look at the clock.  10 minutes till go time.  The nerves start to creep in.  You tell yourself you have it under control.  You tell yourself not to get worried.  However, slowly, insidiously, the thoughts creeps in -- "what if I missed something?  What if I make a fool of myself?  Do I even know what I'm doing?  I've never done this before." 

5 minutes till go-time.

Your pulse is racing.  Your palms are sweaty.  You are doubting you can get through it.  You glance at the exit door, and then look back at the floor.  You avoid eye contact with the administrative assistant.  You just want to get it over with.  You feel sick.

Go time.

When the manager finally pokes her head into the lobby and gestures for you, you get up and follow, say hello, but you can't process the words coming out of her mouth.  You're 100% in your own head. 

Now what?  Do you rebound?  Do you feel deflated and get out over there as soon as possible?

The Art of Total Preparation 

What's interesting is that many of us subconsciously avoid pressure situations because of those agonizing 15 minutes of waiting.  Regardless of the outcome of the event (e.g. did we get the sale, did we botch our presentation...) the 15 minutes of anticipatory, panicky anxiety may be so raw and so vivid that we'd rather not put ourselves through it again.  Ever. 

Unfortunately, in situations like the one above, many of us learn an anti-lesson: it's better to play it safe than to put ourselves out there and try something new.  If we learn the anti-lesson, it’s gam over.  Sure, we may have to go to more sales meetings for our job, but we're not going to do all the prep work.  It's not worth it.  And, feeling so defeated, we're not going to bring an upbeat attitude to our presentation.  We're just going to conclude that sales is not our thing and look for another job, despite everyone's reassurance that we're doing fine.  The 15 minutes of anxiety was just too much.

To unlearn this anti-lesson, it requires that we become comfortable with the unexpected, the unpredictable.  Sadly, preparation based on research, training and skills is not enough.  We also need to work on how well we relate to ourselves in a given moment.  How well can we recover when we're knocked out of our comfort zone?  Can we have some understanding toward ourselves for a whole anxiety episode?  Are we okay with a little bit of embarassment?  Can we view our anxiety-stricken experiences as a learning opportunity?  Can we bring ourselves back to the present moment quickly? 

The answers to these questions will affect our performance and our outcomes, regardless of how well prepared we are in terms of our prior research, our training and our facts. Even in this example, our hero could have quickly rebounded and shined, but it would have required a different kind of preparation.  It's the kind of preparation that comes from knowing how to handle anxiety in a novel situation, where there are no firm expectations.

Typical advice about anxiety is to get prepared.  Preparation helps, but sadly, it's not total preparation unless we're aware of how we relate to our fear response when it spirals up.  I've never met anyone who didn't experience anticipatory anxiety, so perhaps we can move toward total preparation by recognizing the universal quality of anxiety and internalizing that everyone goes through.  Anxiety is a natural response when we're expecting something bad to happen.  (It would be quite strange if we didn't feel anxious when we expected something bad to happen!)  With the recognition that it's part of our experience to feel anxious and panicky at times, we might comes to understand the way that others deal with the experience.   Who knows, over time, we may even learn the art of total preparation.

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