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‘I’m So Nervous at Work, and It’s Holding Me Back!’

Photo: The Cut

Dear Boss,

About six months ago, I started a new job that takes some different pieces of my background and combines them into a new role. I was pretty up front in the interview process that a lot of my skills are self-taught and I hadn’t formally worked in this capacity yet.

I want to do well in this role so badly, but I fear I’m getting in the way of my own success. The job pays well, the work is interesting, and there is growth potential. Beyond that, I’ve always done well at my jobs in the past, so my personal bar for myself is set pretty high. I hate disappointing people for avoidable reasons. But I’m getting so worked up over wanting to be great at my job that I keep getting lost in the weeds, making mistakes, and dropping balls.

I’m generally a little forgetful and scatterbrained, but in the past this has never been an issue because I’ve built systems to help keep track of my work. But with this role, it feels like there’s so much going on and I just can’t stay on top of all it. Little details will get past me or I’ll forget to double check something or forget a certain process or software use case. 

At my weekly check-ins, my manager does bring up my mistakes and we talk through them. I’m pretty good about not repeating mistakes, but there always seems to be some new hurdle down the road that trips me up. 

At my six-month check-in, my manager said my work was great so far, but it doesn’t feel that way. I’m terrified of being that employee who can’t connect the dots about her performance and ends up getting fired out of the blue.

So I guess my question boils down to this: When do these little mistakes start being a big deal? And how I do I find some chill in order to actually succeed in this role?

On top of all this, over the past six months I’ve also been dealing with some medical issues and getting married, and I feel like I’ve been exhausted or distracted way more than is usual for me.

It’s normal to make mistakes, especially when something is new to you.

There is a level of mistakes that would be problematic, of course. But it’s significant that you’re not repeating your mistakes; you’re learning from them and getting it right the next time.

And yes, then you run into something new and make another mistake. But that’s pretty normal when someone is learning a new area of work or working at a higher level than they’ve had to in the past.

It’s also significant that you’ve always done well at your jobs before this. When things have always come fairly easily to you and you’ve never needed to develop your persistence muscle — the mind-set that sometimes things are hard and you just have to work at them and eventually you’ll master them — it can be incredibly disconcerting the first time something doesn’t come easily. You see this with people who always did well in school without a ton of effort and then hit hard classes in college or a challenging job and freak out because suddenly they’re not achieving as easily as they’re used to. But that’s not a sign they can’t do whatever the thing is; it’s just a sign that being challenged is new for them (and for you).

Of course, it’s possible that these mistakes truly are a sign that you’re not well matched with your job. But the third piece of significant info in your letter is that your manager says you’re doing well. There certainly are some managers who are bad at delivering candid feedback, especially when the news is bad. But unless you’ve seen evidence of that in your boss, I’d trust that she would tell you if she had serious concerns about your work, especially since she’s been good about addressing mistakes when they happen.

As a manager, when I’m managing someone relatively new who’s making mistakes, here’s what I look at to determine how concerned to be: Is the person taking the mistakes seriously and learning lessons for next time? Are they adjusting their systems and their thinking to prevent those mistakes from happening again? Or are they being cavalier, not processing the feedback, and continuing to mess up the same things? I also look at the nature of the mistakes. If they stem from carelessness or truly bad judgement, that’s going to concern me a lot more than if they just reflect that that person is still in the middle of learning new processes and systems. Based on what you wrote, I suspect the reason your manager isn’t worried is because your mistakes fall in the “still learning” category, not the “careless/bad judgment” category.

If you can really internalize that — that this is normal for a new job and you’re doing just fine — that will probably help with your nerves. And once you feel less anxious you’ll probably be more present and focused on your work, which will lead to fewer mistakes — and then you’ll be in a more positive cycle that reinforces itself.

That said, there are other things you can do to cut back on how often you’re making mistakes, too. For example, because you know you don’t always remember small details, build in time to ground yourself before you begin any new task. When you’re about to start work on something new, take a few minutes to reflect on what guidance you’ve been given about it so far, any feedback you’ve had on similar tasks in the past, and any reference materials or checklists you should be consulting. Then, write down a short summary of everything that’s important for you to remember about the project. Put that somewhere where you’ll see it while you’re working: Paste it at the top of the Word document you’re working in, or write it on a sticky note on your computer screen. Just being deliberate about those things can help keep your focus where you need it.

Beyond that, try to cut yourself a break! You’re learning how to do a new job that’s harder than what you’ve done before, you’re dealing with medical issues, and you’re in the middle of getting married! Of course you’re exhausted and distracted; anyone would be. New jobs are exhausting even under the best of circumstances. I think chances are very high that six months from now you’ll feel more confident. If you don’t, you can reassess at that point — but take it day by day until then.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I’m So Nervous at Work, and It’s Holding Me Back!’