What goes through your mind when you face a big opportunity or challenge at work – the kind that sits squarely outside your comfort zone?

Like the prospect of taking on a big new assignment you’ve never attempted before, or speaking up in a big meeting, or negotiating for a raise in pay?

Back in the day, these were just a few of the many things outside my comfort zone. And for the longest time, I allowed my busy-ness to be an excuse not to do these things even though I knew they would make a positive difference to my career.

Maybe this happens to you too?

Why even achievers stay in their comfort zone

Achievers are not immune to the gravitational pull of the comfort zone. Some might say we’re especially prone since we’re used to success and feel like we have more to lose.

Often, it’s fear that keeps us from jumping in. The kind of fear that shows up as, “OMG, I can’t possibly do or say yes to that – I’m NOT READY!”

In my case, I found myself:

  • saying no to the chance to build a new business in the London office even though I knew I should say yes to new opportunities (and even ask for them like many of my male colleagues did!),
  • saying nothing in our daily meetings where I could have been showing my leadership to senior people, and
  • waiting for “the right time” to bring up the subject of compensation (it never seemed to be the “perfect” time).

If you’ve experienced any of these feelings, you’re not alone.

The difference between preparation and readiness

If you haven’t made the time or effort to prepare, and if you haven’t spent even a moment thinking about the challenge or opportunity, then fair enough. You deserve to feel you’re not ready, because you really aren’t ready. This would be a good time to go and do the work to prepare.

But as an achiever, it’s far more likely you’ve done the work to prepare yourself, yet still don’t feel ready.

Maybe you’ve done some research, thinking and even practice, but know there’s still more you could do. Perhaps you’ve gotten advice and input from mentors and supporters, but there’s still doubt in your mind.

You can do all the work to be prepared and still not feel ready.

And that leads you to hold back from taking action, which can be a real problem for your career.

The problem with giving in to “I’m not ready”

The first problem with holding back because you don’t feel ready is that it leads to disappointment and downfall. It may take a while but holding back will sink you if you let it.

After all, it’s typically the acts of omission – the things you don’t do or say – that keep you playing small, not the acts of commission.

When you allow yourself to linger in your comfort zone, still preparing but never acting, you’re likely to miss opportunities. While there’s always another train, it arrives on someone else’s schedule, not yours. So it may be a while before the next one comes.

It also can also lead to talking yourself out of even trying to get ahead.

The second problem is that holding onto the “I’m not ready!” script can sabotage your performance. So even when you’re thrust into action (like your name being called when it’s time for your speech or your baby being born which makes you a parent, ready or not), it’s hard to fulfill your potential.

When your inner voice says negative things, it keeps you from bringing your best self to the moment. You’re working against yourself, and that keeps you from performing at your best.

Readiness is a state of mind

In Apple’s CEO Tim Cook’s commencement speech at Stanford University earlier this month, he talked about the difference between being prepared and being ready.

The quote that sticks in my mind is, “Your mentors may leave you prepared, but they can’t leave you ready.”

In particular, he talked about the loneliness of taking on the mantle of CEO after his mentor Steve Jobs was gone. And even though they had worked for a long time to prepare for that moment, Tim Cook still felt he was not ready. Yet, he had to move forward and do his best.

The same holds true for you.

When you’ve done the preparation, readiness is a state of mind. You have to allow yourself to admit you’re ready!

To help you move forward and act and feel ready, here are five strategies I’ve found useful.

1. Do the preparation but set a deadline

Work (or preparation) truly does expand to fill the time. So give yourself a finite amount of time to get prepared and do everything you can in the time available.

2. Focus on what you know

There will always be more things you don’t know than what you do know. Focusing on the former will make you feel less confident. Instead, focus on what you do know and draw strength from it.

3. Use the 5-minute rule

Before it’s “show time”, take 5 minutes to summarize and synthesize your knowledge or message into three main points. Organizing your thoughts will give you further confidence that you can tap into the things you do know and the preparation you have done.

4. Give yourself permission to feel ready

When it’s time to step up, let go of the unhelpful “I’m not ready!” thought and replace it with “Yes, I’m ready.” Give yourself permission to go forward with the best possible mental framing.

5. Trust yourself

Few things in life go exactly as planned, and you’ll most likely need to improvise. That’s when trusting yourself so you can be present and “in the moment” will win the day. It’s time to let go of doubting your readiness and just breathe and trust yourself instead.

Step up into your next level of growth and learning

When it’s your time – when that opportunity or challenge comes up – step up to your next level of learning and growth. Make the leap into the unknown. You’ll have more of a safety net than you think you do, especially if you’ve built the relationships with people around you ahead of time.

When your time comes, and it will, you’ll never be ready. But you’re not supposed to be. Find the hope in the unexpected, find the courage in the challenge, find your vision on the solitary road.”

– Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

Act as if you’re ready. It doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself. Call on your network, rely on your team, and lean on your supporters. Above all, take action.

As for how I ended up in London, fortunately, my managers wouldn’t take “no, I’m not ready” for an answer. I ended up having a golden opportunity that put me in a better position career-wise, and it was better for my family too.

So, how about you?

What do you need to give yourself permission to say, “Yes, I’m ready”, to?

Leave a comment below and let me know.