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The Discomfort Zone

September 30, 2011

This is a follow up to my last post about sticking it out in a new job. The ‘what-happens-next’ part.  

So you’ve done the baptism of fire, and now you actually quite like your job. You’ve learnt a lot and you’re in that zone called ‘high ability, high motivation’. Well, in the real world it’s more like ‘moderate motivation’, or ‘some days I’m motivated and others I couldn’t give a crap’. But anyway…

That zone seems like a warm and comfy place. Other people ask you for help, you get good results and your boss heaps praise on you.

Unfortunately, it’s not going to last: you’ll soon start asking to do more and learn more. You want to be challenged – to get out of your comfort zone. You’re all about self-development, career progression, stretch assignments.

And that’s where it all comes unstuck. Because what we all tend to forget is that getting out of your comfort zone is actually quite uncomfortable. So, while ‘development’ sounds nice in a  performance review, it actually sucks when you’re in the moment.

It means doing things you aren’t very good at (again!). Or things you feel a bit funny about doing (I hate asking people for money – but apparently Account Directors have to negotiate fees and chase late payments). It means feeling just as vulnerable and useless and unskilled as when you started this job.

It’s really just like a workout: if it doesn’t hurt a bit, you’re not doing it right. There’s a point in every Body Attack class (about four songs in) where you think you can’t possibly tough it out for a whole hour. Of course you do (unless you’re a pussy). And when you’re doing a set of 12 on the bench press, you can’t imagine getting past 9 – but you do.

That’s all pretty normal – we expect to feel that sort of pain in the gym (except for those lame-arses who just meander on the treadmill. I hate those people).

At work, however, it comes as a bit of a shock. ‘What? I have to suck at this job again?’ Yep, you do – for a while at least.

I know there have been times in my career when I’ve felt totally out of my depth. (My solution is generally to ‘fake it ’til you make it’).

It’s almost like a cycle – you get good, get comfy, then get put on the rack again. My boss is always pushing me that way – it’s one of the things that makes him a great leader.

It can be surprising to find out what pushes us into the discomfort zone. Some people are terrified of presenting, for example, but I quite like it; what really freaks me out is calling up people to follow up on proposals – I hate harassing them.

So, maybe this all seems quite obvious to you – yet I can’t count the number of times people forget it. They come into my office panicking about their performance, or despairing about their future.

But doing new things is hard, and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you are bad at your job or in the wrong place – it just means you’re halfway through the workout, waiting for the endorphins to kick in.

And of course, once they do – once you get better and hit the next level – it feels just as good as pushing out that last rep on the bench press.

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One Comment
  1. What about people who read magazines while they are on the treadmill?

    While you still spend plenty of time finding the usual discomfort zones as you get older, there is an additional kind of discomfort as well, trying to get out of your head the things you have learned and putting them into some kind of shape – in the possibly futile hope that it might save someone else making the same screw-ups you did. I’m finding that as uncomfortable as the new stuff I have to learn, like Tweetdeck say.

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