Everyone gets nervous. Here’s how to successfully channel your fear.
- How I succeeded in TV despite imposter syndrome
- Battling extreme anxiety in court, and what it taught me
- My five questions to help channel fear
Experience is a great thing. It teaches you that things are rarely as terrible as they might seem.
Watching the recent Euro 2020 Football tournament, I was struck by Cristiano Ronaldo as he stepped up to take a penalty against the world champions, France.
He looked really tense. Cristiano took a huge, deep breath. He muttered to himself, trying to suppress his nerves. The hopes of a nation were on his shoulders.
The referee blew his whistle, and Ronaldo fired his shot into the goal.
He went on to score a second penalty, and his goals gave underdogs Portugal an impressive 2-2 draw against the current world cup holders.
Following the tournament, Ronaldo re-joined Manchester United. He scored two goals in his first match back at Old Trafford. But when he was interviewed, he revealed he'd been incredibly nervous.
What strikes me is that Cristiano is probably the most successful footballer ever. He has scored more international goals than any man in history. He has more Instagram followers than anyone else on the planet. Yet he still feels nervous both before and during important game situations.
He'd already won the 2016 Euro championships as captain of his country. He has nothing to prove to anybody. But it turns out his nerves are potentially a helpful thing.
According to organisational psychologist Rebecca Newton of LSE:
If you're feeling nervous, remind yourself it's most likely because you're pushing your career forward
And so, it's really important to be brave enough to try new things, despite the fear this might induce.
This is how successful people work - they develop the ability to endure and manage fear effectively, and keep going regardless.
Stepping out of your established comfort zone can be incredibly tough on your ego.
When I was running my company as a photographic news agency back in the noughties, I realised that we needed to adapt our business model to survive.
I had established a great little business that looked after newspapers, magazines and foreign sales agents with a steady supply of valuable news imagery.
I was successful in my field, enjoying the confidence of major newspaper editors.
But things were changing quickly and I had to pivot.
I decided to go and pitch TV broadcasters with documentary ideas that were developed from our journalism.
At that moment, factual TV was doing very well indeed. Buyers at TV networks were generally unwilling to entertain ideas from companies with no experience. They simply didn't need to take the risk on untested talent.
I managed to wrestle my way into meetings with networks. But I found them hugely stressful. I was deeply nervous before I went into the meetings. My impostor syndrome was off the charts.
But slowly and surely I worked through my nerves each time enough to share my ideas with clients and to try and listen to the rejections carefully and respectfully, despite feeling desperate.
Being rejected for meetings and having my ideas trashed was a long way from cosy lunches with friendly newspaper editors.
We then partnered with experienced producers ZigZag Productions, which gave us a much better chance of success.
Eventually, after years of battling nerves and working far outside my comfort zone, we got our first documentary away with Channel 4 and National Geographic.
The film was a great success and paved our way into building a successful TV production company.
For years I continued to have low confidence around my ability as a television maker. But I learned to manage my way through those situations. And by sticking at it, staying positive and believing in myself, I became a successful executive producer in my own right.
Another time where my fear was off the charts was when I was called as a witness in the trial of one of our former colleagues, who was accused of stealing over £95,000 from my company.
I remember travelling to court on the London Underground, listening to A Tribe Called Quest on my headphones for reassurance, hoping that things would turn out for the best, but desperately worried that things would go badly.
With the amazing support of my colleagues, I had also decided to take out a civil lawsuit to recover the money that had been stolen from us. We had applied to the High Court in London to freeze the assets of our former colleague to prevent her from getting rid of the stolen money. But the judge had initially ruled against us, leaving us to pick up everyone's costs, including the perpetrator's.
We really couldn't afford for her to be found not guilty in the criminal trial, as this would likely influence the outcome of our continuing high court case. We had poured a lot of money into trying to get justice, and there was a great deal at stake.
Appearing at a crown court as a witness was something I wasn't at all prepared for.
I didn't know where to go at court, or what to do.
I felt completely out of my depth, which made my confidence levels plummet.
I couldn't see how I would manage to give a good account of myself in court.
Luckily I was looked after by the kind volunteers at the witness support unit there.
When I was finally called, I stood in the witness box and felt my heart beating out of my chest.
I couldn't believe how anxious I was, despite knowing that I was telling the truth and that I was the victim, not the criminal. I was literally sweating through my shirt and desperately wanted to loosen my tie!
I spent an afternoon being questioned by the prosecution and then had to go back the next day to be cross-examined by the defence barrister.
He dug into me, accusing me of being the criminal. With a courtroom full of people I found that incredibly stressful.
I wanted to shout at him, to tell him what an outrageous slur that was.
But I knew my objective was to give an honest testimony that would help secure a conviction.
I worked so hard to stay calm despite the pressure I felt. I nearly lost it at one point, but I used the passion bubbling up inside me to push back as hard as I could without losing control, explaining that I was the victim and clearly asserting the guilt of the accused.
I managed to channel my stress toward achieving my objective, and redirect it into a passionate and powerful statement of fact.
When the judge finally thanked me and let me leave the court, I was emotionally shot. I burst into tears at the witness support office, thanking them for their kindness and guidance at such a tough time.
I didn't attend the rest of the trial. I went home and busied myself with other things.
And in the end, justice was served.
I learned a great deal from that incident about how to manage my way through high-pressure situations. I hope I don't have to grind out too many of them again. But if I do, I know that there are a few questions I can ask myself to help get me through.
- Is this as bad as it first seems? Often, things feel much worse in the initial moment than they end up being. It's important to rationalise the situation you find yourself in. Assess it, and work out what you think is likely to happen, and what the worst and best-case scenarios might be. Then focus on what actions you might take to get the best possible outcome.
- Will this matter in a decade? Most of us will live into our 70's or 80's. And many of the challenges we face along the road wouldn't be worth a page in the story of your life, let alone a chapter.
- How can I positively redirect these feelings? Caring deeply about a situation is a natural and important thing. Don't punish yourself for feeling worried, scared or hopeless. Recognize you are doing your best, and think about how redirecting your fear into positive action might help ease the pressure.
- What parts of my life are going well? Most situations are temporary, and only impact a limited part of our lives. If what you are going through is confined to your career, it is vital to count your blessings in terms of areas where things are good - family, friends, relationships, hobbies and the rest. Being grateful for these things will contextualise your issue, and offer positive energy you can use to get yourself the best possible outcome.
- Who might be able to help me now? Seeking help is a superpower. There are very few things that have never been experienced by others in the past, and finding help is vital to achieving good outcomes. You don't need to figure it all out from scratch when others have already got that experience ready to share.
Running a company, being a parent and part of a family, caring for friends and doing my bit in the community all mean having to deal with scary situations. But I wouldn't change them for a minute. Investing in relationships and taking responsibility requires you to sometimes face up to scary situations. Pain is the price we pay for love.
And my ability to channel stress has developed over time like an athlete would improve their muscle mass. By managing multiple scary work issues concurrently, I've developed an ability to stay calm (mostly) during challenging moments, which I'm grateful for.
Remember - some problems that seem insurmountable actually solve themselves without you needing to do anything at all.
If you can keep calm and carry on, the results will speak for themselves.