If You’re In Over Your Head at Work, Try an S.O.S.
“I’m in over my head.” How often this thought has crossed my mind.
If you’re ambitious, this will happen to you a lot. It has with me: in every single job.
You reach a plateau. You are no longer enjoying the feel-good effects of learning so you jump from one learning curve to the next. And at first, your progress is slow: everything’s coming at you way too fast. What was I thinking? you wonder. Say hello to risk-taker’s remorse.
In most instances, if you give yourself six months, which the 10,000-hr rule suggests you need, you should find yourself happily afloat.
But what if you really are in over your head? Really.
Maybe your ego cashed a check your skills couldn’t cover; or you looked the part, so you got the promotion. Perhaps the problem you were hired to fix is much bigger than anticipated, or you’ve jumped into what you thought was a fresh-water lake only to discover you are swimming with sharks.
Before you drown, send out an SOS: stop, organize, secure. Regardless of how you got here, do not make it worse by acting without thinking and moving uncontrollably, such as sending out e-mails you haven’t slept on or vetted thoroughly. As uncomfortable as it may feel, don’t just do something — stand there. When you stop, you conserve emotional and physical reserves and preserve your political capital. Next, organize, assessing the situation and appraising what you need to do to regain your buoyancy. How far are you from the shore? How deep is the water? How close is that thunderstorm? Do you need swimming lessons, or a lifeguard?
As for securing what you need to succeed, in the best of situations, you’ll be able to ask for and get the help you need. When I started in equity research, I didn’t know how to craft a persuasive investment thesis or build a financial model. In retrospect, I was flailing (working all the time even when I wasn’t working, for example) but there were lifeguards on duty – in a supportive boss, colleagues that were ceaselessly helpful, and salespeople who were confident that I would be a rock star analyst. They threw me a lifeline every single day, and I eventually figured it out. Provided you have a team that wants you to succeed, it will take hard work but you can keep your head above water.
Even in a less trusting work environment, help from the right people and the right places can make a difference. This is what happened to me at one bank where I worked as an analyst – my skills were there, but I had colleagues who for their own reasons did not want me to succeed. The combination of an internal sponsor and an external coach made all the difference.
But there will be times when you won’t know how deep or choppy, or shark-infested the water is. No matter how good a swimmer you are, when the sharks are circling, you are dead meat. Sometimes then, the only way not to drown is to get out of the water. I’ve had that a time or two in my career – we all have. It’s just part of an ambitious career.
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, if you aren’t in over your head, you can’t know how tall you are. The best will dive where no one is swimming — or wants to swim. Swimming in unexplored waters means you will sometimes get in over your head. Like I am right now with the D^4 conference I’m planning for 2014. I announced it before I even had a venue. I haven’t ever put on a conference of this magnitude before. Which has left me gasping and thrashing. Fortunately, I’ve swum a lot of laps, and I’ve got the one essential safety device for explorers in deep water: the life jacket of a network, whom I will humbly ask for help.
Living an ambitious life means being perpetually in over your head. You’ll be fine as long as you keep your S.O.S. at the ready.
Originally published on 12/2/2013 at https://hbr.org/2013/12/if-youre-in-over-your-head-at-work-try-an-s-o-s.