When I first started teaching executive education classes at Harvard Business School, I was part of a team of five professors who conducted one-week programs for leaders of businesses from all across the globe. Most of my colleagues had extensive experience to draw on: They had served as consultants in a wide range of organizations, and they had taught in executive education for years. I had neither a consulting nor a teaching background. Walking to class, knowing that more than 90 executives were waiting for my wisdom, I felt rather nervous. My heart pounded. My palms grew clammy.
Instead of focusing on the class I was about to lead, my mind turned to all the ways I fell short: my lack of consulting experience, my greenness as a teacher, my weird accent, my degree from an institution that was not well known, and how relatively young I was, compared with the other instructors, not to mention the executives in my class.
Many of us are familiar with this kind of anxiety. I’ve interviewed and studied many leaders whose confidence has faltered before a high-stakes situation. In the face of a new challenge, it’s easy to fall prey to a particular narrative—that crippling story that sometimes runs through our head about our many shortcomings and all the possible ways we might fail.
But here’s some good news: We can engage with that anxiety productively. Here are three strategies that have helped me change the narrative and turn stressful moments into meaningful ones.
Expect to do well How we think about an outcome influences our actual results. This insight has been demonstrated for years through the use of medical placebos. In one study, patients received intravenous injections of morphine over two days to reduce the pain created by dental work. On the third day, certain patients received an injection of saline but were told it was a powerful painkiller. Those who received this placebo tolerated the pain much better than would normally be expected—even compared with the patients given morphine.
This phenomenon holds true outside of medicine. How I expect to do at something beforehand—whether a meeting with a potential client, a joint project with new colleagues, or teaching a class full of executives—actively influences how I actually do. When I expect to do well, I feel more comfortable and excited, and as a result, I perform better. Not only that, research shows that I am also judged by others as more competent.
Reframe your anxiety as excitement Research (pdf) has found that when we approach high-stakes performance situations and tell ourselves that our jitters are because we are excited—and not just a state of mind we need to calm down—our levels of anxiety drop. Even more effective is when we frame the upcoming task as an opportunity to learn and improve—regardless of our immediate success or failure.
This is how I ultimately made the turn with my stressful teaching gig: As I kept walking across campus to face the room full of executives, I decided to think of class as a great learning opportunity—even if I bombed. My anxiety about all the ways I wasn’t like the other instructors, I told myself, was really excitement about being included among such an accomplished team. This reframing worked: I felt far less stressed, and the program went well. I did learn from the experience, and eventually I became a regular teacher in the executive education programs.
Focus on your strengths When we enter a high-stakes situation, we have a tendency to focus on all the ways we could or should be better. As research has found, this is because we believe our weaknesses are more malleable than our strengths. In fact, we’ve got it backward: We improve faster, and do better, in areas where we are strong than in areas where we are weak. This is in part because we are more motivated to put effort into our development when we are confident that things will turn out well—and this is more likely with our strengths.
In the face of a challenge, then, one of the best strategies for engaging with our anxiety is to recall, and steer into, what we’re good at. Think of how coaches work with professional athletes: They might do some work on “weaknesses,” but mostly they are building on areas of tremendous skill. In the same way, when we turn our attention to our areas of greatest competence—rather than focus on all the ways we fall short—we allow our true selves to shine. This authenticity makes us more likely to secure jobs, higher ratings in our presentations, and money for entrepreneurial ventures or deals.
“ We too have the ability to channel our energy productively in the face of a challenge.
There’s a video I like to show to my students that opens with a little boy strutting through a backyard, toting a ball and bat and wearing his baseball cap.
“I’m the greatest hitter in the world,” he announces. Then he tosses the ball into the air. A swing—and a miss.
“Strike one!” he yells.
Undaunted, he picks up the ball and again says, “I’m the greatest hitter in the world!” He tosses the ball in the air, only to whiff again.
“Strike two!” he cries out.
The boy carefully examines the bat and the ball. He spits on his hands and rubs them together. He straightens his cap and says, once again, “I’m the greatest hitter in the world!” He throws the ball in the air. He swings. He misses.
He pauses, confused. Then he exclaims, “Wow! I’m the greatest pitcher in the world!” And he smiles. This is the smile of focusing on your strength.
Like this boy, we too have the ability to channel our energy productively in the face of a challenge. We can use our anxiety for good—allowing it to empower us rather than undo us. All it takes is a change in our narrative.