What’s Your Kryptonite?

It’s Superman’s greatest weakness in case you’ve forgotten.  The mysterious alien mineral that robs him of all his superpowers.  Kryptonite makes him a mere mortal, like the rest of us.

I think the word has meaning even for those who haven’t read the comics or seen the movies.  The dictionary defines it as “something that can seriously weaken or harm a particular person or thing.”

What’s yours?  We all have at least one weakness or thing that terrifies us.  For the purposes of this discussion we will focus on our professional lives.

Maybe it’s getting fired or demoted.  Or being passed over for a big promotion.  Or, even worse, getting that big promotion or starting that new business and failing.  For those suffering from imposter syndrome (which according to studies is widespread), the thought of getting “found out or exposed” is terrifying.

Superman’s strategy for dealing with kryptonite was to avoid it at all costs.  If he wasn’t exposed to it, he had nothing to fear.

However, I don’t think that’s the right approach for the rest of us mere mortals.  Avoiding our worst fears tends to make them larger and scarier than they really are, especially if we let them fester for a long time.

I think Joseph Campbell, the late writer and professor, had it right when he said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”  Campbell’s point is that the only way to achieve fulfillment and satisfaction in our professional lives is to step outside our comfort zone.

As we approach the end of January, perhaps many of us are already abandoning the New Year’s resolutions we made over the holidays.  But if we make and follow through on only one resolution this year it should be to identify and confront our greatest professional fear.

Now, if you’re afraid of losing your job, I’m not suggesting that you get fired.  But what you can do is think long and hard about what it would mean should that happen.

When I was going through a tough time earlier in my career and operating from a place of fear, my former executive coach John McKee suggested that I spend 10-15 minutes a day “disaster fantasizing” – imagining if all my worst professional fears came true.  Write them down, every bad thing I could think of.

And once that was done, he said I should spend a few minutes thinking about what steps I would take if any of those things were to happen.

This exercise taught me two things.  First, nagging, persistent worrying can be corrosive.  No one functions effectively when negative thoughts and doubts bounce around their head all day.  The act of scheduling time to worry, to let it all out, to write them down, serves as a sort of psychological release valve that can help clear out the negativity so you can operate with a clear head for the rest of the day.

And the second lesson was that as bad as our fears are, once you start to brainstorm strategies for responding you realize that you have options.  You are much more resilient than you think.

Many of us feel like we need superpowers to effectively balance the demands of our professional and personal lives, especially the past two years.  Expectations and challenges only seem to multiply.  Life isn’t getting easier. 

The temptation for all of us is to try and be like Superman and steer clear of that which we think will weaken us.  But avoidance only diminishes us and our potential.  The only way to get stronger and truly achieve our potential is to run towards the kryptonite and confront it head on. 

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