The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?” is by Joseph Steinberg, CEO of SecureMySocial.
Don’t let the fear of looking stupid harm your chances of success. When I began working over a decade ago on what ultimately became Green Armor’s anti-phishing system, I would often ask myself, “If your idea is truly brilliant, why hasn’t someone smarter already thought of it?”
Not long after dismissing those thoughts and persisting throughout a rough development process, I prepared — for the first time — to present the technology to an outside party considering investing in our firm. I felt uneasy. Not because I would be presenting to sophisticated people or because I would need to answer sharp questions posed by smart venture-fund partners – I had previously performed such tasks multiple times. Rather my fear was of looking stupid – of having smart people dismiss what I thought was a brilliant invention as dumb. Not to mention potentially harming my growing reputation in the cybersecurity field. In the end, the meeting went well. And while that particular company never invested in my product or the business that would blossom from it, the invention that I revealed to the world that day would go on to successfully protect millions of people against financial fraud. Why, I wondered afterward, was I so afraid?
The fear of looking stupid holds people back. A report published last year by researchers from Harvard and Wharton noted that people often refrain from asking advice due to a fear of looking incompetent, even when they know that obtaining the advice will improve the odds of success, and despite the fact that asking for advice actually increases the perception of confidence. This phenomena seems to be quite old: Two millennia ago, the Jewish sage, Hillel, taught that “one who is easily embarrassed cannot learn” as the fear of appearing stupid can cause a student both to refrain from asking necessary questions and to fail to experiment with new concepts and theories.
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Over the years I have heard many people tell me of brilliant ideas that they conceived but did not bring to life, only to ultimately regret their failure to act when someone else achieved great success by pursuing those exact ideas. In several cases, people who would likely have made millions of dollars simply by filing proper patents failed to do so, because – as they later told me – they feared “making a fool” out of themselves. The fear of appearing stupid can cause people to act stupidly. Building a business around something that you invented, or taking on some other substantial challenge, can be risky and scary. But what I have learned over the years is that while many risks must be addressed, the fear of looking stupid is often irrational. Everyone makes mistakes, and successful people respect others who take initiative, try new things, and try to grow – even if sometimes things don’t work out.
When I began building SecureMySocial several years ago my mind started to wonder along the same path that it had a decade prior. The problem of inappropriate social media posts harming people and businesses had not yet reached epidemic levels; would I look stupid trying to address a risk that people did not yet perceive, even if I was sure that various trends would cause the problem to grow worse with time? This time around, however, the question did not instill fear; I had confidence. I had heard similar questions before – and I already knew the answer.
Read all responses to the Leadership Insider question: “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?”
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