As a child who was never a good swimmer, I had a deep fear of drowning. Pool parties were all the rage during Houston summers, so I confronted the craze by lingering in the three-foot section, my neck stretched up to avoid breathing in chlorine, or worse, getting dumped into the deep end by one of my friends. Despite my fear, my mother was confident I could handle the water: "If someone threw you in, your instincts would kick in."
Working at a startup means that you get thrown into the deep end a lot. As a Content Marketing Manager at WayUp, a company that helps college students get jobs, I'm frequently tasked with projects I've never encountered before. During meetings, this would often send me into a silent panic, counting down the minutes until I could get back to my desk and Google what just happened.
But after being wary of moments like this, I soon learned that I'm often rewarded by the results. Instead of drowning, I'm thrown in and I figure it out, accomplishing something that I thought would send me into the depths of hysteria. Now, when I'm faced with a scary new project, this is how I jump in.
Ask Stupid Questions
Back in college, classmates who hadn't even read the materials would often dive boldly into the conversation. "Jumping off of his point," they'd begin. They were full of it, but the pressure to seem like the smartest person in the room led them to act confidently, even when they had no idea what they were talking about. That kind of bluster may work in college, but it won't help you get results for a new project.
My first month at my current job, I was put in charge of managing a daunting redesign project for our company's blog. I was asked direct questions to which I didn't know the answer, and I tried, unsuccessfully, to put on my best poker face and pretend like I had it under control. In my mind, if I admitted that I didn't know how to do something, I would be letting my coworkers down.
Our CEO pulled me aside one day and said that I was doing a great job, but that I needed to speak up when I didn't know the answer. "We're not trying to impress each other here," she said. Since then it's been a lot easier for me to stop assuming I should already know something and just ask the "stupid questions." Even something as simple and direct as, "What do you mean?" goes a long way.
Learning to admit the holes in my knowledge didn't inhibit my ability to do the job well, nor did it make me seem incapable. In fact, it helped me to learn and seek information from the right people to fill in those gaps. As a result, we went from a blog that displayed gaping black boxes in place of images (the struggle was real) to one that looks as professional as any on the internet.
Take the Customer Support Approach
Part of my job involves managing customer support, and we have a very specific way of talking to our customers -- rapid responses coupled with unwavering positivity no matter what. If a student says, "Stop emailing me and go jump off a bridge!!" (true story), then our response starts with: "Thanks for your note -- so sorry these emails have been bothering you!"
My gut reaction when I'm handed my next big responsibility isn't to be positive. It's to text my best friend asking if there's a secret plot to trigger my first heart attack. But complaining only makes the task harder than it should be.
Now I allow myself a few minutes to be dramatic, and then I take the customer support approach by being upbeat and getting to work. The most positive motivator is to tell myself that more responsibility is better than no responsibility. Instead of being placed on the sidelines, I would much rather be handed project-after-project, because it shows that co-workers trust me to get the job done. Even if I think they're wrong, I work my hardest to prove them right--which, in the end, does prove them right.
Surround Yourself with Inspiring People
During my second job search out of college, I knew exactly what I wanted in my next office environment. I wanted to be surrounded by a team with ambition and drive that didn't quit. I was lucky enough to find it in my current co-workers. The sales team hustles to make hundreds of calls a day, while the marketing team manages 900 campus reps and the engineering team creates a platform good enough for the world's top companies in a matter of months.
This type of environment not only yields incredible results, but it also creates an enormous sense of accountability. When you're handed a formidable task, you can't say, "Sorry, this is too much." Because there are 30 other people around you managing a task of the same magnitude and killing it. That kind of environment makes you better.
The same people that inspire me are my biggest resources when it comes to important projects. I can go up to any one of my coworkers and say, "If you have 15 minutes today, I would love to bounce some ideas off of you." I can count on them to say yes regardless of how jam-packed their schedule looks. And because we're in this together, I do the same for them.
Remember that it's not about you
Of our seven work values, my favorite is, "Fight for our users." Each company's mission is bigger than its employees, and when you believe in it, you eventually rise above your personal fears. The late nights and long hours I have spent over a period of weeks and months don't matter in comparison to the results. I'm building something with a team I admire and we're changing people's lives in the process.
It's ok not to know the answers to everything, and it's definitely ok to be uncertain of how to approach a project that lies outside of your experience. But when you dive in, you might just be surprised at how much you can accomplish.