The secret to tackling workplace nerves

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Thing will go wrong and mistakes will be made, says Caroline O’Donoghue. You’ve just got to learn the difference between perfection and control

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

I was once in a yoga class where the teacher farted. It was incredible. Not just that she farted – a symptom of yoga much more common than reaching nirvana – but that she owned up to it. It was the tiniest, breathiest little yoga-teacher fart, one she could have easily passed off as a mat squeaking (or not acknowledged at all). Instead, she gave an elegant smile half-smile, said, “Oop, little fart there,” and carried on teaching the class.

I thought about that fart for ages afterwards. It said a lot about her, that she was able to remain so composed despite letting out a squeaker while 30 people were watching her, but it said a lot about me that I liked her so much because of it. Of the scores of yoga teachers I’ve had, she’s the only one who I really remember and the only one whose weekend retreats I actually make an effort to occasionally attend. Because the fart was so much more than a fart – it was about control and how we, as humans, react to it.

I think, too often, we mistake “having control over a situation” for “doing everything perfectly”. It’s a hugely important distinction to make. Whenever I’m at anything that has a performative aspect to it – whether that’s at a stand-up show, a wedding, a presentation at work, a spin class – you can always tell how well the person at the top of the room is doing by how their mistakes are discussed. There’s almost always a mistake – they drop the laser pointer; they forget a line; they can’t fit the ring on the bride’s hand; they fart. And, 100% of the time, the mistake will be discussed afterwards by everyone as if it were the point of the whole performance. “Did you see the bit where he couldn’t get the ring on?” will be invariably followed with “I know. I saw. But didn’t he recover amazingly? And he made that lovely little joke? I fancied him a bit, in that moment.” Cue group nods and everyone agreeing that it was cute and we did all fancy the groom a bit in that moment. We love a good show but, most of all, we love a good recovery. It humanises people and we’re more inclined to like them afterwards.

That’s the difference between doing something with control as opposed to doing something to the letter. Perfection means nothing goes wrong; control means that even if it does go wrong – and it will – you are able to recover from it. And, honestly, I feel like we focus too much on the former and not enough on the latter.

Slowly, I’ve started letting go of the frantic nerves attached to performing my work in front of other people. Because perfection isn’t possible, but recovery is

Why is this important, though? Well, because one of the functions of the changing job market is that a lot of our jobs are becoming more and more performative. Whatever field you work in, there’s been a huge shift over the last decade from “send me over those numbers” to “show me those numbers, using a large deck of slides that you present with jokes and personal anecdotes”. It’s not hard to see why this is – the more and more automated basic tasks become, the greater the emphasis is on “selling” your own work and proving that what you personally bring to your job is important. The workplace becomes an extension of the stage and, for me – someone who has just released their first novel and often has several events a week where I have to promote it – the stage has become my work. I have to sit in front of people – in my nice dress, with my clammy hands – and convince them to buy my book.

And it’s fun! Genuinely. But it’s also nerve-shredding. There are thousands of ways for it to go wrong: I could drop my book; I could spill my drink; I could get a question I’m not ready for; I could do that thing where my voice goes all high when I’m reading aloud; I could fart. All of this runs through my mind all day, as the nerves gather and fester in preparation for an event. I think of all the ways I could fuck up. I picture myself saying something that is misunderstood by an audience member, tweeted and then becomes a snowball of online Caroline O’Donoghue hate. When I express these nerves to anyone, they always tell me the same thing: it will be fine; you are great; nothing will go wrong. They are being supportive and helpful, and I’m grateful, but the simple fact is this: things do go wrong! I have spilled my drink on stage and I have got tongue-tied. But when I acknowledge how tongue-tied I’ve become or make a joke that reassures the audience I’m alright, that’s when I feel the room warming to me. That’s what people bring up in the signing afterwards – it’s always some version of “I really like how you fucked it up there”.

That’s when I realised: I have become my own farting yoga teacher. I am able to bounce back from embarrassment and people like me more because of it. I have let go of performing perfectly and instead focus on being able to embrace the mistakes I will invariably make. Slowly, I’ve started letting go of the frantic nerves attached to performing my work in front of other people. Because perfection isn’t possible, but recovery is.


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Photo: Getty Images
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women at work
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