In this guest post, Stu Wragg (main photo), chief strategy officer at Herd MSL, says your best work so often happens when you’re well out of your comfort zone…
There’s a lot to be said for feeling comfortable but when it comes to professional development, it’s uncomfortable experiences, not comfortable ones, that matter most.
For me, feeling uncomfortable is what happens when I take on projects or tasks that require skills I’m yet to refine. Situations that push me outside my comfort zone. Experiences new in some shape or form. Fortunately, a career spent in agency has offered plenty of these experiences.
What causes me discomfort has evolved a lot over the years. Experiences that made me uncomfortable a few years ago are vastly different to those today. Presenting to large groups, for instance, used to make me feel uneasy. Today, lots of practice later, I actively enjoy presenting. Largely because the whole experience is significantly less uncomfortable than it once was.
Feelings of discomfort are sometimes connected to confidence. Am I sure I can do this? What haven’t I considered that I should? I used to think such questions were signs I was out of my depth or that I was the wrong person for the job. Now I see such questions as positive. There’s a humility to them that recognises I may need help. There’s a thoughtfulness to them that shows I care.
One uncomfortable experience that’s memorable was the time a client asked me, with two days’ notice, to travel to India and oversee a major launch event. With limited detail about the event and no experience working or traveling in India, I boarded a plane to Delhi unsure I had the skills required. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. After a week of hard work and a crash-course in how to organise an event in India, all went well. Better still, I returned to Sydney with increased confidence in my ability to handle ambiguity.
Building confidence in my ability has been a huge benefit that working through discomfort has offered. The same has been true for others I know. Over the years, I’ve seen friends and colleagues enjoy huge professional gain by taking on challenges they weren’t sure they could handle.
From running complex campaigns, to delivering pointed counsel to senior stakeholders, I can recall countless moments when persisting through discomfort has led to successful outcomes. One of those outcomes has been the building of personal resilience. Resilience that’s come in handy to tackle future uncomfortable experiences.
The opportunity to practice being uncomfortable can be found every day. Whenever I scan my to-do list, I observe tasks that make me more uncomfortable than others. Regardless of why, I generally make a point to tackle those tasks first. I do that because I’ve learnt feeling uncomfortable is almost always a sign I should lean into that task. A sign there is something to learn. A sign I will feel good upon completing it.
Having said that, it’s all about balance. Spend all day feeling uncomfortable and I quickly become tired. Spend too much time feeling comfortable and I soon become bored. There’s a David Bowie quote that articulates the balance I need. “Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
I love that quote. When I reflect on the work and projects I’m most proud of it’s almost always the result of operating from that place. That place where I’m free to play to my strengths but with enough discomfort to know I’m experiencing an opportunity to learn and grow.
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