When I ask my clients “what worries them about their business”, the most common answer is that they “don’t know what they don’t know.” This kind of undefined anxiety, the fear that you might be ignorant of something that could harm you is a common cause of self sabotage for small business owners. When you don’t feel safe, you are more likely to play small, stay less visible, and find yourself caught up in procrastination and other unhelpful habits. The solution is not to stay in your comfort zone until you know all the answers, because if you try that, you will never go anywhere. Instead, get used to feeling into your discomfort and seeking out the sweet spot where your current level of risk is just scary enough to feel challenging, without activating your fear responses. Here is how!
Think of your business as a swimming pool
This is one of my favourite and most useful metaphors, because it enlists your intuition to help you feel – and stay – safe. It may seem strange to hear a lawyer say it, but intuition and your gut feeling are powerful warning systems. If something – or someone – doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t. It is very empowering when you learn to trust yourself, training yourself to notice this discomfort and take appropriate action.
Even taking action doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers. Appropriate action could include:
- doing some research,
- talking to someone who has more experience,
- delaying your response until you have had time to think about it more thoroughly,
- choosing not to work with someone and to refer them to someone else, or
- being honest about your unease and letting them know the limits on your advice.
It is much worse to pretend to be an expert than to admit you don’t know something and explain what you do know. It is much worse to ignore that sense of dread and forge ahead anyway, than to risk disappointing someone. In my experience, people appreciate honesty – I have turned clients away, only to have them refer other clients to me. They appreciated me letting them know up front that we were not a good fit rather than wasting their time and money, and that helped them recognise when someone else needed me who was just right.
Holding that image of a swimming pool in your mind, I am going to help you feel into where you currently are. The biggest thing to remember is that if where you are is uncomfortable, you don’t have to get out of the pool, and you are not stuck there.
All you need to do is identify action you can take to move yourself back into your sweet spot.
Too shallow or too deep?
Imagine that this pool that is your business has a deep end and a shallow end.
When you are playing in the shallow end, you are completely safe. However, if all you are doing is occasionally dipping your toe in the water, or wading around at ankle depth, you are not really having any fun, are you? In the shallow end, you are just dabbling with a hobby rather than building a business. You might be passing up opportunities to grow and serve because you can’t control the outcome and that is terrifying. Maybe you are only taking on a few in-person clients that you are comfortable with and know well, rather than taking your business online. Maybe you are only charging tiny amounts for your work, rather than increasing your prices.
At the opposite end of the pool is the very very deep end. If you are playing here, it is likely that you feel out of your depth, and maybe likely to drown. In the deep end, you are taking on so many risks that you are struggling to keep your head above water. You might be working with clients whose needs are beyond your capacity, either because you have insufficient time, or the scope of work required is beyond your current experience. You might be winging it, pretending to be an expert in an area where you are not confident of your skills. I think most entrepreneurs (including me) engage in that behaviour from time to time, but it is important to know where to draw the line. There is no shame in admitting that you don’t have all the answers or all the skills. I quite often tell clients that I don’t know the correct information that applies in their situation. If it is on the borders of my practice area, I might research with them so we can make an informed decision together, but if it is in a different practice area or is too complex, I refer them to someone who specialises in that space. I am used that feeling I get in the pit of my stomach that warns me I am getting in too deep, and I am quick to listen to it and adjust accordingly.
The most important thing to remember is that if you are not comfortable – if you are out of your depth – you don’t have to give up and get out of the pool or confine yourself to the shallows. Similarly, if you have only been playing in the shallows up to now, there is nothing that says you need to jump in up to your neck. Make small adjustments and feel into the difference as you seek your sweet spot. If you are in the shallows, this could be a small commitment to being more visible, such as posting a selfie, doing a Facebook live or asking friends and family for referrals. It could be getting your legals or other foundational systems in place so that you don’t feel so exposed (see my previous blog post about when to stop flying naked). If too deep, it could require you to pay some attention to your boundaries and see where you are sacrificing instead of supporting yourself, or where you are not acting in alignment with your values and vision. It may involve saying no to a client, or as I did recently, instituting an urgency fee to reduce the amount of “last minute” orders that you are taking on.
Too hot or too cold?
Just as our imaginary swimming pool of business has a shallow and a deep end, it also has a cold side and a hot side.
When you are in the cold water, you are frozen in fear, too scared to communicate. You might be in shallow cold water, where you are not promoting your services at all, or you might be in deep cold water, where you are petrified of telling a client that you are unable to deliver what you promised.
On the hot water side of the pool, you have no restraint in your communication. At the deep end, you might be broadcasting your availability to all and sundry without thought of niching. You might might find yourself breaching client confidentiality, oversharing or promising far more than you should. In the shallow end you might be giving all your trade secrets away for nothing, letting people take advantage of your generosity.
As with the deep / shallow dichotomy, this is a gradation, not a sharp divide and your sweet spot will be unique to you. What is just right for you (sharing photos of yourself or perhaps your kids online, for example) might feel far too hot for someone else.
When you have got it just right
If this concept makes sense to you, I challenge you to use it. Close your eyes and feel into your current place in your business pool. Are you in a sweet spot, or is there some discomfort there? If so, what kind of discomfort is it? Shallow, deep, hot, cold? Your intuition will tell you.
Once you have felt into the discomfort and listened to what it has to tell you, take a moment to brainstorm actions that could help you move into a space that feels better. If your water is too shallow, you might consider taking one small step towards launching that new thing you’ve been dreaming of. If too deep, you might think about enquiring about contracts to give you more confidence and reduce your risk. Too cold? Maybe take a chance on doing something like attending a network event or posting in a new Facebook group. Too hot? It could be time to review your policies and procedures.
The action that you take doesn’t just have to be totally practical, either. Mindset work can be extremely effective in shifting discomfort. Tools like EFT, ho’oponopono and journalling can help you, not to change where you are in the pool, but to change your perceptions and emotions about that position and how safe it is.
Another important thing to remember is that your position in the pool is not static. As your business grows and changes, as new clients come along, as you make new offerings, you are moving around in the pool and your comfort level is going to change. Your tolerance is going to change as you get more experienced too. What is too hot and too deep right now, might feel just right down the track.
As a result, I encourage you to keep using this imaginative exercise to check in regularly, and to use your intuition to determine what you need whenever you find that you are not in a sweet spot.
How I can help
I have tried to distinguish here between the sweet spot and your comfort zone, as they are not the same thing. Your sweet spot will generally be towards the outer edge of your comfort zone, or if you are naturally risk tolerant, your sweet spot may be quite far outside your comfort zone where you feel sufficiently challenged. The thing to focus on is your feeling of safety.
If you would like to work with this metaphor (and more like it) in greater detail, you might like to check out Castle Quest: The Serenity Shift, my risk management and good governance course for intelligent and creative entrepreneurs.