Career Advice From HBO's 'Big Little Lies'

There’s a moment in Big Little Lies that I can’t get out of my head.

In the third episode of the mini-series, Laura Dern’s character, Renata Klein, is talking with her husband about their daughter’s challenges at school. When her husband tries to make a joke to lighten the mood, she tells him, “Just let me be a scared mom.”

Given the fascinating way the show covers women’s relationships with their partners, other women, work, sexuality and more, it felt surprising and significant that that’s the line I kept coming back to, even after the series’ conclusion.

  • It’s because so often clients are coming to me with their fears. They’ll say,
  • I’m scared they’ll give the job to someone else if I negotiate,
  • I’m scared if I take on this new project, I’ll fail, or I’m scared that if I go after a promotion and don’t get it, I won’t be happy in my current role.

They tell me they’re scared about something fairly often, but rarely are they comfortable with feeling that emotion. They often interpret fear as a sign they shouldn’t take action. They may be coming to me with the hope that I’ll have some magical life hack to override their fear response and make it go away

What was so compelling about Klein’s request was that she was owning her fear.  She was willing to name it, “I’m scared,” and ask for support to stay with that feeling. “Let me be scared.”

Fear is an emotion that can be hard to sit with, one we’re taught to avoid. We think it indicates something is bad or wrong and that we should flee whatever it is that makes us afraid. Fear of physical harm, for example, is an important self-preservation instinct. On the other hand, fear also commonly surfaces when we’re stretching into a new space professionally.

If we feel scared, it can be difficult to differentiate between fear that indicates danger and fear that’s healthy and a sign of growth.

When clients are struggling with fears about advocating for themselves, the very best thing I’ve found to do is to listen, ask questions, and hold space for them – to support them in talking through it. Letting them address their fears and get more comfortable with being scared allows them to go into the negotiation set up for success. The data bears this out.

One study demonstrated that increasing women’s feelings of control over the negotiation process improved the outcomes of their negotiations. A key aspect of this was helping women identify and strategize about how to overcome anxiety producing situations. In English, this means that knowing what scares you and naming it can help you advocate for yourself. Want to ace your next negotiation? Make space beforehand to feel your feelings.

There’s more evidence that accepting fear as a healthy emotion works.

I recently presented at a conference with Kathryn Childers, one of the first female United States Secret Service Agents. Through rich anecdotes about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the Queen of Spain, Childers described her experiences protecting the first family and foreign heads of state. When she talked about her success in the service, Childers said it wasn't that she wasn't scared – it’s that she just did it anyway.

It turns out that the very vulnerability and self-awareness it takes to recognize that you’re scared can actually make you even stronger and more effective.

Central to Klein’s identity is that she’s both a working mom and a successful company CEO. While she makes some questionable choices, her approach to fear in this scene is a very healthy one. As I crave more of her backstory, I’d like to believe that part of her professional success stems from her willingness to name and sit with her fears.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.