Do you have big dreams that always seem to be on the back burner? Are there goals you’ve yet to achieve, a step out of your comfort zone you’ve been terrified to make so far? Are there people out there you admire yet you’re not sure how you’d ever get to where they are now?
There are many reasons we play it small and sometimes we’re not even aware of what’s guiding our choices as it sits in our subconscious. Either way the result is the same - the answer is yes, if you play it small you will always miss out on making it big.
One of the main things that stops us is fear! Fear of what other people will think. Fear of losing what we have, of leaving what we know. Fear of being different. Fear of the unknown. What if I get it wrong? What if I lose what I have? What if I fail? Fear of rejection means that sometimes we won’t even ask the question. Our fear of failure means that we often prefer to play it safe to avoid failure - but at what cost?
And is failure really such a bad thing that it brings about such fear in us? Giving ourselves permission to fail is part of learning to play it big – the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. I used to think that if we avoided failure we’d be successful by default but I now believe that failure is actually part of the path to success and each failure can be a step closer to success.
I spent years learning what I don’t know (the art of writing, marketing 101, and the business side of publishing) and still I sometimes fail! I put on events and no-one turned up, my first royalty cheque was worth less than $5. It didn’t stop me because if I gave up all the hard work to date would have been for nothing. It’s taught me to learn to see the success in failure - the lessons learned.
But as well as fear of failure, it’s worth noting that we may also (ironically) experience a fear of success! Summed up perfectly by Marianne Williamson who said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.”
Fear is what happens when we try to take a step outside of our comfort zone. It’s called that for a reason. It feels nice, safe and comfortable and that’s why it’s so easy to stay there. It takes courage to step outside our comfort zone and do things that are different and unfamiliar. But if we can move outside of our comfort zone it expands, as our comfort zone becomes bigger we learn more. Things become easier as there are now fewer things outside our comfort zone, therefore less that scares us. Think of public speaking, a thing that sits outside most people’s comfort zone. It makes many of us nervous, me included. But once we’ve done one, we can do another and by the time we’ve done 30 our comfort zone has expanded and now includes public speaking. So it no longer feels so nerve racking and our confidence improves. Yes, it’s a challenge, yes they’ll be fear, danger and maybe even failure along the way, but that’s part of the path and unless you travel the path you’ll never grow.
Our fear of failure can also breed a perfectionism in us that means if we can’t do it 100% right and right now we don’t do it at all. Well, sometimes done is better than perfect and getting the ball rolling, making a start, taking action is key on the road to making it big. You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress – in fact it is the only way. We’re always learning, never perfect and continuously developing.
We do struggle with being a work in progress though and many of us (70% according to the journal of behavioural science) suffer from Imposter syndrome which can also be a major contributing factor in our playing it small. Imposter Syndrome is an inability to internalize accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud". Often feeling like you’re not as good as people seem to think therefore not as deserving or capable of the success you’re experiencing.
It impacts both men and women, no-one is immune to the self-doubt this feeds (apart from narcissists). But what matters most is not whether we fear failing, it’s whether we give those fears the power to keep us from playing it big.
Imposter Syndrome can also be blamed for us downplaying our achievements and not claiming deserved credit. It can also be from our need to please, to fit in and be liked. We may have been brought up not to boast of our achievements and to overplay modesty as a way if being liked. This can lead us to downplaying our achievements or waving away recognition and simply not valuing our success. Our cultural expectations can play a role here too; “don’t get above your station” – the tall poppy! Your success may appear as a threat to others so we downplay it to protect them; older siblings, best friends, male partners. In many cultures girls are taught to avoid risks whereas boys are encouraged – it can have lasting impacts on us and that decision we take on whether to lean in and go for it or not. We downplay achievements because no-one likes a big head and we all desperately want to be liked or we step back rather than lean in because we’ve been conditioned to and we want to fit the mould – either way we chose to play small each time.
Whether we’re frozen to the spot due to fear or imposter syndrome or (highly likely) a bit of both, when things scare us we can find so many excuses that prevent us from moving forward. It’s already been done, I don’t have the time, I need some more experience or money or the time just isn’t right yet. We worry about leaving our comfortable familiar place to step out into the unknown and most of all we worry about the potential impacts of making that move. What will people think? What if I get it wrong? What if I lose what I have? What if I fail? All valid concerns and all potential outcomes we risk when we take a step into the unknown - but there’s no way of getting around it, it’s part of the journey. Grow is not supposed to be comfortable, it’s supposed to stretch us so that we can learn and grow into the people we’re capable of being.
Don’t forget as well that if we are playing it small it could also mean we don’t want to make it big. Not taking up a promotion opportunity could be for any of the reasons above but it could also be because we simply don’t want it. The seniority is not for us, we don’t want the hours and pressure or we may be in the wrong job all together so it pays to be aware of this option as well in order to guide our decisions. Sometimes playing it big can mean saying no, walking away from something that isn’t right to play it big elsewhere.
Playing it small is easier and safer, it appeals to our aversion to risk taking and desire to stay in the comfortable, familiar place we know. Playing it big is hard, it’s scary and it takes courage to go there but it pays off – it’s worth it and there’s no way of doing it without the tough side effects we have to navigate.
There’s no short cut and those who’ve got to where you’d like to be haven’t found a certain secret you’ve been missing, nor have they got it right and you’ve got it wrong. They have just faced their fears, worked hard, learned from the mistakes and decided they want to play big.