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I used to get sick from anxiety. Now I'm a TEDx speaker

·6-min read
Shadé Zahrai used to struggle with self-worth. This one piece of advice turned it around. (Source: Supplied)
Shadé Zahrai used to struggle with self-worth. This one piece of advice turned it around. (Source: Supplied)

Shadé is a career coach to the world’s biggest leaders. In part two, hear her insights on the 5 red flags it’s time for you to leave your job.

It’s hard to imagine that Shadé Zahrai ever struggled with self-confidence.

A TEDx speaker, peak-performance consultant to Fortune 500 firms, championship-winning Latin dancer and TikTok careers and psychology expert, Zahrai has been required to communicate and perform in every aspect of her career.

Today, her bite-sized pieces of advice around how to navigate tricky moments at work, build confidence and achieve goals are regularly watched by millions.

However, in her early career, Zahrai’s anxiety around her performance was so bad it made her sick when she landed her first post-graduate role.

“After graduating, I got into a top-tier commercial law firm [but]... I was so stressed and full of self-doubt because I didn't feel like I belonged there,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“It was absolute imposter syndrome. I’d done really well at university but I didn't feel like I belonged and I made myself sick because of the anxiety - I became physically ill.”

This imposter syndrome and difficulty accepting her value was a problem that had plagued Zahrai since university.

Two lectures in, Zahrai wanted to drop out

(Source: Getty)
(Source: Getty)

While Zahrai today works largely in psychology, careers consulting and mentoring, she also studied law after graduating from school.

She’d been encouraged not to “waste” her stellar leaving grade, and to invest it in a course with high entry requirements, leading her to law.

Two lectures in, she nearly dropped out.

“I was convinced I needed to drop it. I didn’t understand anything they were talking about - it was like a foreign language to me,” she said.

She approached the careers adviser to ask for advice on dropping out, expecting reassurance that she could manage the course load.

She didn’t get it.

“She just leant over and grabbed the form [to drop out] and said, ‘Here you go’,” Zahrai said.

“In that moment, I thought, ‘Hold on a second. Here I was, expecting to get reassurance and support.

“‘You clearly don’t believe in me either, even though you don’t know anything about me. I’m not comfortable with this, so I’m going to show you … that I can do this.’”

Galvanised by the adviser’s indifference, Zahrai turned her degree around with one simple habit: asking questions.

“I was very vocal in classes,” she said.

“I was so afraid of not knowing an answer that I would be over-prepared. So they would give us questions ahead of each class and I would spend hours and days responding to each of these questions, so that when they asked them in class I could raise my hand.”

Zahrai’s engagement meant she could develop a good relationship with her tutors.

Then it was her turn to ask questions.

Her favourite? “What else do you think I need to know about this?”

“They would basically reveal it in their responses.”

One question later, she would have a near crystal-clear understanding of exactly what she needed to focus on to succeed.

She went from struggling to stay afloat to top of the class. However, the self-confidence challenge would continue to nag her for years as she worked in the legal and financial services industries.

The piece of advice that turned it around

(Source: Getty)
(Source: Getty)

Her problem, she now recognises, is she was laser focused on ‘the gap’.

To her eyes, there was no way she measured up against her colleagues, and was in fact convinced she’d only landed the banking job due to a hiring error.

“When I was in my very first year in banking, I remember meeting with one of the senior leaders of one of the teams, she was recommended to me by another one of my colleagues,” Zahrai said.

“I … kind of viewed her as a mentor, and I said, ‘I don't feel like I have what it takes to succeed.

“‘I don't know how to use Excel. I don't know how to do financial modelling. I don't feel like I'm good with numbers. I don't understand this industry. I'm concerned that someone's going to discover I don't belong here.’”

Imposter syndrome reportedly affects 70 per cent of the population, but this can be as high as 75 per cent among executive women.

“We often know that women, when they're in environments where they are a minority … women have a tendency to fixate on everything we don't have,” Zahrai said.

“It leads us to becoming more risk averse and being less inclined to put our hands on opportunities in case we might fail.”

However, Zahrai credits her mentor’s advice with flipping her mindset.

“She looked at me and asked: ‘Shadé, why do you focus on everything you can't do? You're not here because of that. You're clearly here because of what you can do and the value that you bring.’”

It’s the same strategy she used in her Latin dancing competitions.

A winning strategy

Shadé learnt to focus on her strengths and turned that into gold. (Source: Supplied)
Shadé learnt to focus on her strengths and turned that into gold. (Source: Supplied)

A three-time national Latin dance champion, Zahrai achieved that success by honing in on her strengths.

“We knew what we did really well and we really leveraged that, rather than trying to really decrease our weaknesses,” she said.

“We could spend all of our time trying to reduce our weaknesses and forget about our strengths, but our strengths are what made us stand out.

“We then didn't even try to beat the competition - that was not our goal at all. We simply made it our goal to actually enjoy the process and ... because of that, we ended up winning three national titles.”

In fact, years after graduating, this is the piece of advice Zahrai most wishes she could impart to her younger self.

Just relax, and stop comparing.

“We’re continually comparing ourselves to others,” she said.

“And often, when we do that, we pick people who are ahead of us … we don’t ever really compare ourselves with people who are where we are.”

This is called upward counterfactual thinking, and it’s the reason Olympic silver medallists are often more dissatisfied than bronze medallists.

They’re unhappy that they missed out on gold, while most bronze medallists are just happy to have made the podium.

“So, what are you focusing on and what are you comparing yourself to?” Zahrai said.

“That would be what I would tell myself: ‘Stop comparing’.

“‘Of course, be inspired by others, have role models, but don’t become fixated on the gap and then feel inadequate as a result.’”

Shadé is a career coach to the world’s biggest leaders. In part two, hear her insights on the 5 red flags it’s time for you to leave your job.

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