How to Be a Star at Work: 7 Rules for a Really Big Career
Rule 2: The Worst-Case Scenario Is Rarely as Bad as You Think
Within three months of moving to San Francisco, having hauled all my furniture out there and signed a year's lease on an apartment, I could tell the magazine wasn't going to survive. In fact, five months into it, I was so sure the magazine was collapsing that I resigned and went on a skiing vacation. Sure enough, while I was away a colleague called to tell me the magazine had been shut down, with only a note posted at the entrance telling employees that the last issue had been printed and they didn't have jobs anymore.
Talk about a worst-case scenario. Here I was in California with no job, and no real job prospects. It would have been easy to sink into frustration at this turn of events. Instead, I started making calls to reestablish my contacts in New York and to tell people I was on my way back. And as luck would have it, I was able to convince the publisher of Ms. to create a position that would broaden my responsibilities beyond ad sales.
A couple of years later, I had a conversation with Rupert Murdoch. At the time, Murdoch owned just a handful of U.S. media properties, though now he's perhaps the world's biggest media baron. He wanted to know about my decision to go to California. "Would you say that's the biggest mistake you ever made?" he asked.
"No," I told him. "I don't think it was a mistake at all." Murdoch looked at me with surprise. But I really didn't think so—not then and not now. As easy as it would have been to berate myself for pursuing a venture that ultimately failed, I still got a lot out of the experience. I scratched an itch I'd had to move out West and try something new, I made some valuable contacts, and I really enjoyed my six months in San Francisco.
So don't handicap yourself by focusing on the aspects of a gamble you took that didn't work out. Focus instead on what you learned from the things that went wrong, and how you can use that knowledge to your advantage.
Rule 3: Don't Personalize Things That Aren't Personal
Have you ever wanted to suggest something new at work, only to back down for fear people would think it was a dumb idea? Or shied away from offering an opinion or making a decision because you didn't want to rock the boat? Although these are natural reactions, they also show a lack of confidence in your own instincts.
Think of it this way: If you're convinced your idea is a good one—or at least, that it has a high enough potential upside to offset the risks involved—why would you expect others to torpedo it? Believe in your own instincts, and sell your idea. If you don't—who will?
Of course, you have to sell it like you mean it. When you're speaking to someone, do you ever:
- Insert qualifiers, saying, "I was wondering if we might consider..." as opposed to simply, "Let's try..."?
- Insert "I think" unnecessarily? I've stopped using that phrase altogether—it only serves to water down your point.
- Downplay your own ideas with phrases like "I'm probably way off base here, but..." or "This might be a stupid idea, but..."?
- Talk in circles, trying to head off objections, rather than putting out your ideas as straightforwardly as possible?
It's easy to fall into language traps, most often when you overthink what you want to say rather than just say it. Women in particular are prone to using self-defeating language. But the more clearly you express your ideas, the more seriously they will be taken, putting you a step ahead from the get-go. And don't feel the need to overexplain yourself—have confidence that your ideas are valid on their merits.
In terms of attitudes about their own abilities, people tend to fit into one of four categories. They're good at what they do, and they know it. Or they're good at what they do, but they don't know it or don't believe it. Or they're not very good at what they do, and they know it. Or they're not very good at what they do, but they think they are—or at least present themselves as though they are.
In my experience, more women than men fall into the second category. They're good at what they do, and incredibly valuable to their teams at work—but they continually undervalue themselves. Of the four categories, this is not only the most self-defeating, it's one of the most common. (And by the way, for what it's worth, far more men than women seem to fall into the last category, ascending the corporate ladder on chutzpah rather than talent.) So don't make the mistake of undervaluing yourself and your efforts—you'll only succeed in blocking your own progress.