Years ago, in his research on learning and socialization, Edward Schein, now Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, made an important distinction between two kinds of anxiety: “learning anxiety” and “survival anxiety.” It turns out these concepts, which he applied to organizational change and growth throughout the course of his career, can also be applied to your career development.
Now, we’re not talking about a diagnosed anxiety disorder; rather, we're discussing the kind of anxiety that many of us feel when facing upcoming changes. In this instance, the anxiety at hand is directly related to what compels us to learn and take risks in our career development.
Two common kinds of career anxiety
“Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past,” Schein told the Harvard Business Review in 2002. Learning anxiety is what might stop you in your tracks when you start to think about being in a new role: you’ll have to learn something new and you might not be so great at it. It’s the fear that arises when you realize you will need to take a risk to achieve your career goals, and that your next step might not go perfectly.
On the flip side is survival anxiety, described by Schein as “the horrible realization that in order to make it, you’re going to have to change.” This anxiety is what propels you to look for a new job in the first place; it’s the feeling of “I need to keep pushing myself or I’ll fade away in my current role.” It’s the feeling that tells you it’s time to move onto something else.
When your survival anxiety becomes a stronger force than your learning anxiety—that is, when your desire to thrive is stronger than the fear of failing—then you’re in a place where you can stretch in new ways and learn something new. This is the right time to look for a new job or consider a career shift.
How to determine if you have learning anxiety
You’ll likely have a sense already of which type of anxieties or concerns are the most powerful for you right now. If not, consider this:
- Imagine staying in your current role for the next five years, doing the same thing you do now. What feelings come up—a sense of dread or a longing for today’s status quo? If the former, your learning anxiety may be strong.
- Imagine you’ve been recruited to join the staff of a new organization that you admire. You know you might enjoy the role but it could be a difficult transition. Are you so worried that it's making you feel ill, or are you excited for the adventure? If the former sounds like you, this could again be a symptom of learning anxiety.
If you have determined that your learning anxiety is so strong that it is preventing you from making a change (even though friends or colleagues tell you it’s time), here are some ways to give yourself a jumpstart:
- Encourage yourself to take an action you’re anxious about, but release the pressure to do it perfectly and instead commit to “doing it badly.”
- Give yourself a pep talk in the third person; instead of “I’m afraid of sending this resume out” use “She’s afraid of sending this resume.” This simple change can help you distance yourself from stress with the benefit of an “outside” perspective.
- Research the many different types of meditation practices and find one that works well to quell your anxiety.
- Try coping strategies such as modified sleep and exercise routines.
Listen to the worry just enough to figure out what it's trying to tell you
Anxiety in the face of change—again, the common worries most of us feel—can propel you forward with excitement. Think of the feeling of your plane taking off at the beginning of an exciting trip. Or it can make us so nervous we want to turn back and stop the change altogether. The important part of this lesson is to understand what your worries are; uncover the source and think about what it means for you. You can do this by writing in a journal, talking with a trusted mentor or coach, or taking some time to sit with a feeling and listening to what you hear in the midst of the silence. Determine what kind of anxiety this is and then take the steps needed to work through it.
And let’s be clear: If you are facing serious anxiety that seems out of proportion with the situation or is impacting your ability to function normally, then it might be more than the learning and survival anxiety I’ve described here. Learn more about coping strategies and reach out to a professional for support right away.
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Liz S. Peintner is a leadership coach and consultant based in Denver, Colorado who has spent her entire career in the social impact field. She helps people to better understand what drives them so they can choose careers they love and ultimately make positive social impact in ways that speak to their talents and passions.