Staying in the Discomfort Zone

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by Birgit Kulbe

You grow fast while in the discomfort zone. But often times we end up being comfortable with our job. It could be because we are good at what we are doing. Nothing wrong with that. Changing jobs often would not be smart either. So how do we keep staying in the discomfort zone, while staying in the job we are comfortable in?

I think about this question all the time. I mean, I’ve been at the same company for almost eleven years! By Silicon Valley standards, I am that rare and very strange creature, like that fish with the sharp teeth and glowy lamp dangling from its head in the inky depths of the ocean. Why would such a thing be? Wouldn’t I get complacent and bored? Wouldn’t I learn more by jumping into new experiences, like the explorer whose wanderlust glimmer sends her to understand what lies at the four corners of the world?

I believe two things: the first is that yes, you do grow faster in the discomfort zone. So if your goal is to stretch your skills, you need to find ways to keep yourself from getting too comfortable. My second belief is that there is always something to learn no matter where you are or what you are doing. When I look back at times in my career when I’ve felt this tug — I’m getting bored. Do I need a change? — the reason is usually because I’m not feeling any external pressure. I’m getting pretty good reviews, I don’t have any fires to fight, everyone’s telling me Good job, keep it up.

But did that mean I had mastered all there was to know of good design and management? Were my peers singing my praises, unable to fathom another person on this good, sweet earth who could possibly do any better than I was doing?

No, of course not. I’m not delusional.

The key to growing while staying in the same job is setting new challenges for yourself. Expect more of yourself than anyone else does. Yes, it requires intentional effort. Anyone who has invented anything new, broken records, or done anything extraordinary has pushed themselves in this manner. By definition, when you exceed people’s expectations, you’re doing something they weren’t thinking you would do. That kind of motivation has to come from within.

How can you keep yourself in the discomfort zone? Try the following:

  • Ask your peers for more feedback. Feedback is a gift given to you by others, not an obligation. If you don’t think the feedback you’re getting is helpful, it’s your responsibility to ask for more. If someone tells you, “You’re doing great,” press for more details. “What I could be doing to better solve Problem X?” “How can I do a better job presenting at critique?” “What’s something I should be doing more of?”
  • Look for role models. For any given skill, who are the best people in the world that you can learn from? I find role models to be an excellent way to calibrate myself. Every time I finish a talk and think I’m getting “pretty good” at public speaking, I think about some folks who I consider world-class, and instantly I’m humbled by how much I still have to learn.
  • Have hard conversations: when something around you isn’t going well, how comfortable are you discussing it directly? How good are you with giving critical feedback? How often do you confront and resolve relationship issues? Having a hard conversation is like inviting yourself to the front row of the discomfort zone. And yet, they are incredibly valuable for bringing issues to light and starting on the path towards fixing them. To consider: have a hard conversation with your manager expressing that you don’t feel challenged and that you’d like his or her help to grow.
  • Set concrete goals to do something new. What’s something you want to do but sounds scary right now? Lead a discussion? Give a public speech? Pitch a new idea to stakeholders? Change the process in your team? Tell yourself you’re going to do it in the next three month. Then do it. You might fail, but you’ll definitely be in the discomfort zone. When I set a weekly blogging goal four years ago, I was afraid of expressing my opinions publicly. I had a hard time pressing the publish button for the first few months, but I learned more that year than in the two years prior.
  • Change your environment: it’s possible that you’ve tried all the above and it’s still not enough, or your role is capped in how much you’re able to do. In those cases, a change in role, team or company might be the best thing. For this reason, at Facebook, we support people moving to different teams if they’ve been working on the same thing for a while. Changing our environment is like the life-hack way of staying in the discomfort zone. If you’ve explored the other avenues and your gut is telling you this is the right thing, listen.

Wishing you a week full of learning.

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