Imagine a basketball player being forced to play in a soccer team for a year. His performance is sub-par and he’s blaming others for being put in an ill-fitting place. Finally, after a year of waiting, he’s given the chance he’d been asking for all along. He should be happy now. Right? Well, yes and no. The prospect of failure now is much scarier than the before. Why? If he failed in something that he said he was bad at, then no big deal. But if he fails in something that should be his strength; something his identity hinges on, then that is scary!
I’m in a similar situation. Performance anxiety is not good for me. So, in order to address the issue, I did what I would typically do. Grab a pen and notebook and psycho-analyze myself.
What is causing the fear?
*Scary thought #1: The circumstances will betray me. For example, I won’t be given enough time to prove myself. I will be judged unfairly. Some other factor I can’t control.
As long as I’m not responsible for the circumstance, then I’m ok with that happening. What frightens me the most is suffering as a result of my own mistakes. Suffering because of things I can’t control, while still painful, is much more bearable. It is re-assuring to remember that I can’t control everything around me. You put in the effort and the results are not your concern.
What if people label me as a failure without taking into consideration the circumstances? That would be fine: the Hashem they draw in their minds is different from the real me. Sure, it’s quite important to gather external feedback from others on your performance: I don’t want to delude yourself. But invested parties have their own biases and problems as well. I’ll take their feedback into consideration but I shouldn’t lose sleep over it. It’s better to find feedback on performance from people who are less invested in the situation so they would have less bias (You can search for mentors in your field at Mentors Search at Authoraid).
Also, this Arabic proverb gives me comfort: يا بخت مين بات مظلوم ولا بات ظالم. “You’re better off sleeping as someone who has been treated unfairly than someone who treated others unfairly.”
*Scary thought #2 : I will fail at my strength, even though all the other circumstances are fine. I can’t blame it on anything else.
—A- Well, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your strength. You can find strength elsewhere, or tweak it a little bit. Maybe your strength lies somewhere near where you thought but not exactly there. For example, maybe you thought you’d excel in writing short social media posts, but your real strength is in writing long blog posts. Take it as an opportunity to get close to where you shine. “Turn your bad day into good data” as the expression goes. Embrace a Kaizen mentality. “This is just feedback to improve my iterations next time.”
B- It’s always good, nay glorious, to know the truth, even if it’s not to my liking. There is pleasure, joy, beauty, success and achievement in embracing the truth, no matter how ugly it is. My core identity is a truth-seeker so as long as I’m honest with myself, then I’m already succeeding and achieving.
For example, I’d rather maintain my identity as a truth seeker, even if it would lead me to lower my perception of how good of a researcher I am.
We have a fundamental need to KNOW. This need can be the need to learn things that we desire: in other words, if you took an exam, you’d want to have done brilliantly in it. This desire to know that you did well is called “specific need for closure”. But we also have another need, which is to KNOW, full-stop : regardless if the outcome is something that we desire or not. That’s called “non-specific need for closure”. There is something in me that wants to know how I fared in the exam, even if I did poorly in it. There are individual differences in how much people have this desire for non-specific need for closure. I think I have it quite high.
And this relationship with the Truth is a stable controllable relationship, because even though I can’t be sure that my thoughts are the truth, I can always give it an honest stab. The real calamity is dishonest manipulation of the truth, whether to myself or others.
Vera is irresistible! Vera is before all! Check out my Vera poem to know what I mean Protected: A Tribute to Lady Vera.(There’s a password for this poem I wrote as I had plans to get it published; many publishers require that the piece is not made available in public. But you can ask me for the password if you’re interested in reading it).
C- Scary thought: This is the ideal place for me. If I fail here, I’ll lose the best opportunity of my life.
Re-assuring thought: This thinking is flawed. It assumes a “soulmate” construction of person/job fit. There is no golden path (Check out “How to be an Imperfectionist” by Stephen Guise for addressing the perfect golden path mentality). In fact, I don’t even subscribe to the “soulmate” theory of relationships. We live in a big big big world with many alternative paths.
D- Scary thought: Failing is shameful, especially in public.
Re-assuring thought: Embrace the cringe! Take pride in embracing vulnerability à la Brene Brown style. Take it as a chance to hone your transparency skills.
E (well, F really) -The Final Re-assuring thought: Death is nigh!
Paradoxically, I find this comforting in dealing with the stresses of life. In the grand scheme of things, I’m a speck of dust and all of my challenges wouldn’t matter, it’s the same destination after all. Now, obviously this technique won’t work with everyone. It’s de-motivating but I need some de-motivation as my motivation is already too high. There is a bell-curve relationship between motivation and performance. Too high a motivation is damaging (e.g. performance anxiety). What if I become stressed out about death? Well, I’d rather stress out over death than the relatively petty issues of everyday life.
Steve Jobs said it well: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”
A Re-conceptualization of Failure
Another important element to this is how we view failure. The web is replete with useful quotes and anecdotes from famous people on this idea: Failure is an inevitable component of greatness.
An inspiring model is Google X and how they embrace failure to encourage innovation “Google X”. AStro Teller of Google X says:
“You must reward people for failing, he says. If not, they won’t take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don’t reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organization’s spirit.” …
“If you shame them when they come back, if you tell them that they’ve failed you because they didn’t find a mountain, no matter how diligently they looked for or how cleverly they looked for it, those scouts will quit your company.”…
“Google X projects have many inspirations and many starting points. But Mr Teller says not one of them has started from the conventional business question: “How can we make a tonne of money?” That is, he explains, because these ideas are about huge, transformative, disruptive change, not the marginal, incremental change of a conventional business. He says that if, like a conventional business, “you make things a little bit better for a lot of people, you’d better have a world class sales and marketing team and make sure that your solution is purchased, because it’s only a little bit better. “But if it’s a lot better, the money’s going to come and find you in a fair and elegant way.””
A call to an Empirical Lifestyle:
We have to be careful for how the mind plays tricks on us in order to save us psychological angst: for example, self-handicapping is a psychological phenomenon where we intentionally sabotage our chances of success so that when we fail, we can blame it on circumstances that doesn’t affect our self-perception. If someone has a test, they could intentionally not study because so that when they fail, they can blame it on their lack of preparation rather than their intelligence.
I don’t want to be like that. It’s better to have a lower actualized success than a potential colossal success that’s never achieved.
I can hide behind my expensive University of Toronto degree, fancy vocabulary and the sweet assurances of my mother that I’m the best thing since sliced bread. But if I really desire truth and mastery, I’ll throw myself in the deep end for there lies Vera (No pun nor paradox intended for “lies”).
As the Arabic saying goes, “The water belies the diver” المية تكدب الغطاس . This basically means “The Proof is in the pudding”. Water in this context could mean see or ocean. 
Oh fire, test my mettle! Oh Vera, I long for thee!
 I chose not to be consistent with the pronouns. As I’m trying to do 2 things in this piece: address my own situation and perhaps offer some food for thought, for someone who might be in the same boat as I am.
 Similarly, Check out Cal Newport’s advice to create a series of experiments that generates feedback in your career path in chapter 14: “Missions Require Little Bets” in his book “So Good they Can’t ignore you: Why Skills Trump Passion” .
 See this Justin Morrow’s article as well.
 The text on the mug says “Water belies the diver”. For the image on the mug and what it means to me, see Boiling Parts of the Ocean . Interestingly, my main metaphor for myself in Comparative Personalities is scuba diver.=