Career Growth = Perpetual Discomfort

In a recent article, I wrote about How to Tell Someone They're Totally Wrong. It was in response to my comments about music and learning how to write songs.

That discussion and the flood of emails I’ve received (with very polar points of view) has probably been one of the most controversial topics I’ve written about — ever.

Clearly, people are very passionate about their music.

I had no idea that I inadvertently walked into such a controversial subject. Seriously… no idea.

But as a consultant, that does happen from time to time.

AND in large part, your value as a consultant or as an influential professional working in industry comes from your ability to work in what I call the ZONE OF DISCOMFORT.

As a recap, I originally wrote an article describing an 80/20 technique to learning songwriting as an example of applying the 80/20 rule in fields outside of consulting.

I received a bunch of backlash from people who called my article “quite possibly the dumbest email I have ever received.” (Ouch!)

I then followed up with a clarification of my original thoughts and turned the incident into a lesson on how to tell someone (like me) they are totally wrong in a way that preserves or even enhances the relationship.

Now at the time, I had a debate with myself as to whether I should really share the harsh criticism with several hundred thousand of my readers. The criticism was not exactly flattering.

BUT, I did so for two reasons:

I thought there were some really good lessons to teach you and my other readers. I was hoping the educational value to you exceeded any potential damage to my reputation or ego.

I felt extremely uncomfortable discussing the topic and from experience, I know that my greatest personal and career growth has always come from being uncomfortable.

In short, I realized that I had inadvertently stepped in the Zone of Discomfort and made a deliberate choice to stay there — even though I had no idea what would happen (which is why it’s not comfortable!).

I’ve decided to stay in that zone some more and to share two key lessons about this very special place — The Zone of Discomfort.

FIRST, in every company, and in every relationship, there are topics that are comfortable and those that are not. When most people run into an uncomfortable situation, their first instinct is to run from it. That’s because uncomfortable situations are often highly unpredictable and often the stakes involved are high.

This is one reason why clients hire consultants. The client can't get agreement internally, the issue is too controversial, and the stakes are sometimes enormous. Sometimes, it is helpful to get an objective 3rd party involved to either render an independent perspective or to facilitate a problem-solving process without a pre-determined agenda.

In short, clients don’t hire you to solve the easy, comfortable problems. They hire you to solve the difficult, uncomfortable ones.

As a result, if you want to excel as a consultant or a professional in industry, you want to develop your ability and willingness to work in the Zone of Discomfort.

One of the trademark traits of an uncomfortable situation is one that has a lot of emotion tied to it. In a client situation, it’s very important to know which topics are the ones that people are extremely passionate and emotional about — and then address them very carefully.

I clearly did not realize music was one of those issues.

If you are working with a new client or working for a new employer, you want to use my all-time favorite, most heavily used, qualitative research technique — the research interview.

I have used that single technique more than any other in both consulting and industry. (For more on how to do a research interview, see the Ultimate Consultant Toolkit  - Module 6: The Insight to Insights: The Secret of the Research Interview.)

Once you are in the middle of an uncomfortable issue or topic, here are a few things to realize:

Especially in a controversial topic, effective exchange of very different points of view is necessary. Think about it. If everyone already agrees on a decision, how much communication is really needed, right?

While effective communication is the most needed when emotions are running hot, it is also the most difficult time to communicate effectively.

It is in this dilemma where good consulting skills come in.

One interim goal is to facilitate the exchange of ideas while de-escalating emotional tensions.

When someone is emotional (including all MBB consultants), it is very difficult to think logically. Nearly impossible.

So, one strategy is to take steps to de-escalate the emotional tenor of a situation, to allow everyone to be able to think more logically. That is one benefit of using the technique I described previously about How to Tell Someone they are Totally Wrong (and have them thank and respect you for it).

It is a way to get the message across while taking the emotional charge that might normally be associated with it down a notch or two.

So, next time you are in an uncomfortable situation with a client or at work, see if you can use some of the techniques and concepts I described to stay in that Zone of Discomfort and work through the tough issues with clients and colleagues.

Incidentally, there is a name that describes this dynamic.

It is called:

LEADERSHIP

Hopefully, you can see: a) just how difficult it is to be a leader; and, b) why consulting firms and employers in industry desire leaders — they are hugely valuable to a company.

While there are many ways to develop your leadership, one is to deliberately NOT shy away from the uncomfortable situations.

Lean into those situations, rather than run from them.

You might not get it right the first few times, but if you force yourself to engage in those situations, your experience and skill level will grow.

THAT, incidentally, is one of the keys to growing your career in industry beyond the level of individual contributor.

When you get good at tackling the tough issues, guess what? You get more of them thrown your way to handle.

Leaders typically deal with either an analytically difficult decision or an emotionally charged one. Often the toughest decisions are both — analytically and inter-personally challenging. There are few people skilled enough to handle either situation independently, let alone simultaneously.

If you focus on seeking out these situations and working on your skills in those areas, it makes you an extremely rare asset — a leader. It is a worthwhile, but by no means easy, endeavor.

SECOND, the Zone of Discomfort applies to not only INTERpersonal situations, but also INTRApersonal situations.

An organization grows when it is able to tackle the tough interpersonal issues. An individual grows when she is able to tackle her INTRApersonal challenges.

So, the second application of the Zone of Discomfort relates to career growth. If you want to grow your skills as both a professional and as a person, the greater willingness you have to be uncomfortable, the faster you will grow.

When I hire employees that I have high aspirations for, I try to assign them projects and responsibilities that cause them to be really excited 50% of the time and scared to death 50% of the time.

In my experience, working on these kinds of “stretch” assignments is THE key to long-term career growth.

If you are serious about such growth, it is useful to deliberately seek out career opportunities that make you UNCOMFORTABLE.

Yes, you want to work in the Zone of Discomfort for as much of your career as possible.

I attribute whatever career skills and expertise I have today to a personal willingness to be extremely uncomfortable for the majority of my career.

However, there are several significant tradeoffs to consider before doing so.

Being uncomfortable is often not as profitable in the short run. If you are a good salesperson, the natural, more lucrative career step is to be a more advanced salesperson. But the more uncomfortable career step might be to become say a financial analyst — to learn those skills.

In all likelihood, such a person would not be a very good financial analyst initially but would learn a lot. So, in the short term, such a person would earn less money and have less prestige. But in the long run, how many finance people do you know that know sales? How many salespeople do you know that know finance cold? This rare combination of skills doesn’t get created out of the blue. Someone had to go learn both types of skills.

Staying in the Zone of Discomfort requires an investment of time, energy and/or money. When you are in the Zone of Discomfort, it is not easy. You are doing many things that don’t (yet) come naturally.

By the way, one of the main reasons I advocate pursuing a career that you’re passionate and excited about is because it allows you to tolerate (if not enjoy) the Zone of Discomfort. If you are in a field you hate, discomfort = misery. If you are in a field you love, discomfort = growth.

Same situation, but two entirely different outcomes.

You can learn on the job through experience (learning from one’s own mistakes) or you can learn through wisdom (by learning from someone ELSE’s mistakes). I’ve personally done a lot of both.

On the latter, I have made major financial investments in learning from others. I made a conscious choice to acquire as many relevant career skills as I could as fast as I could, and the conclusion I reached was that it was faster to learn from others than exclusively on my own.

These investments were not all convenient or comfortable to make at the time. But I made a strategic tradeoff decision to make them. It has paid off, but definitely not immediately.

By definition, the average career person performs at an average performance level. The average person does what everyone else does — which pretty much logically guarantees average performance.

To achieve at an exceptional level, one must be willing to do what the average performer is not. The average performer prefers doing what is comfortable because it is easy — and often more profitable in the short run. The exceptional performer, by definition, has to do things the average performer does not. One such thing is to seek out and be willing to engage in The Zone of Discomfort.

My question for the day is this:

Are you comfortable or uncomfortable in your current career position?

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27 comments… add one
  • Ravindrjo Jan 29, 2014, 1:46 pm

    This is one of the best advice I had in last some time

  • Dan Jan 29, 2014, 9:01 am

    Victor,

    Great article, and one that resonates with me right now.

    As a relatively-recently separated submarine officer, I started (and completed 6 months ago) with a leadership development program of a large private company that has had quite a few service academy grads, and trains them for leadership positions in their specialty construction subsidiaries. I’m getting ready to take the place of a branch manager who has 30 years experience in industry. You can guess how much experience *I* have…

    Everything about the situation is uncomfortable – financed, sales, P&L, customer and vendor relationships…it’s all new. I also understand that the plan for me to take an executive role requires it.

    Your article helps give a good perspective – not only is my situation not new for many people, but it should be expected if one hopes to track themselves for growth.

    I appreciate your insights (I started following your work when I began learning about case interviews – I got to final interviews at McKinsey after knowing nothing about consulting companies but studying your products for a few weeks), and continue to learn from you as I grow in industry.

    Thanks again for your articles!

    • Victor Cheng Jan 31, 2014, 2:56 am

      Dan,

      Thank you for sharing your story and it raises a really useful discussion point. It sounds like you are being thrown into the deep end to see if you can learn how to swim before you drown.

      LOL… that is one way to do it. I have done it that way at times. It can work, but boy is it tough at times.

      One risk to be careful of is feeling overwhelmed. If or when that occurs, I would recommend developing a queuing strategy. This is how computer chips are designed. When a chip receives more requests for computation that it can handle, the chip forces the request to wait in line. In fact for most chips, it can handle only one operation at time. So one request gets 100% of the processing power, and all there rest of the requests get precisely 0% of the processing power.

      It turns out this works much better than giving 100 requests 1% of the processing power.

      Translated, tackle your new role one area at a time. If you have 5 areas you are weak in, trying to address all 5 simultaneously is torture. Figure out which of the 5 is most critical and put the vast majority of your energy into figuring that problem out.

      In some organizations, the hot issue is team composition. You got a good business, but the wrong people. In that situation, nothing else matters. The strategy isn’t that relevant. The market differentiation isn’t the highest priority. Its the fact that you can’t even hold a meeting with your direct reports because you have no confidence they can do anything by the next meeting.

      In other organizations, financial management is the major obstacle. Maybe a business unit is bleeding cash. Everything else is irrelevant if the business unit ceases to exist in 90 days.

      The LESS experienced you are the MORE you have to ruthlessly prioritize. Just something to keep in mind.

      -Victor

  • Kenneth Lai Jan 28, 2014, 10:59 pm

    A very insighful article indeed! In my experience however, I would like to point out that feeling discomforted is an understatement; it would be pain, sheer pain.

    For one, things in the world are moving too fast for us (Gen Yers) to keep pace with, till the point that almost every little single things felt foreign because textbooks are outdated and guidance are misguiding. Realizing those facts early on, knowing we are well behind the curve in terms of career growth, we’ll have to face discomfort in its most extreme form, pain.

    To enjoy growth be it interpersonal, intrapersonal, or career growth, i believe it enduring/ enjoying pain would be the only way to go.

    Cheers.

    • Victor Cheng Jan 31, 2014, 2:49 am

      Kenneth,

      Thanks for sharing your point of view. It seems somewhat drastic. I have a different point of view. There is such a thing as too much discomfort. Too much discomfort = Overwhelmed… which in my view = pain.

      I think it is sub-optimal (though sometimes one can’t control the level of discomfort one gets too precisely, its a crude control a best) because at the point of overwhelm, the stress can be debilitating, creativity degrades with stress is too high as does logical judgment. Also the risk of burnout is extremely high.

      If it is possible to be right at the edge of discomfort and stay there, thats the optimal long term position.

      -Victor

  • Andy Jan 28, 2014, 5:16 pm

    As always, it’s the same with girls. You have to get out of your comfort zone, if you want speak to a girl you don’t know. In the moment you are thinking about doing it, you will find a thousand excuses not to do it. But actually none really counts, because it’s always worth doing it. And even if it’s just for the dopamin running through your vains or that you be proud of yourself afterwards or because you made the girl feel better, because you made her a nice compliment. And also, you will get better at it the more often you do it.

  • Marcus Mok Jan 28, 2014, 12:31 pm

    Dear Victor,

    You have been my all-time favorite virtual mentor for years and still are. I totally have no adverse comment onto your music learning piece, it was just an exercise of learning by fixing all but a single parameter in rotation of the music dimensions. Originality does not limit to invention of the wheel only to qualify a car design to be copyrighted today. We all learn from others’ product.

    Back to the question of comfortable zone. I am currently in a new job under a promoted title and job descriptions in a foreign country new to me. My current career has slowly turned into comfortable from the discomfort.

    The tradeoff for expanding my empire of comfort zone gaining different set of skills related to the industry would be having a rather short time span (2 years) for each job function. To some, i could be a rambling job-hopper. To my last employer, the rare combination of skills is what shape me into a rare gem.

  • Alan Luo Jan 28, 2014, 12:07 pm

    Hi Victor,
    Thanks again for another insightful article. I agree wholly with you to always get out of our own comfort zone and learn new skills, however I’ve have a question: how would you effectively convince your future employer to hire you for the tasks you are excited of but might not be very good at initially?

    Many thanks,
    Alan

    • Victor Cheng Jan 31, 2014, 2:44 am

      Alan,

      This is very hard to do with a completely new employer. Where I have seen employers willing to take a risk on someone using unproven skills is with an existing employer.

      If a superstar engineer wants to be a junior sales person within the same company, a senior executive can say it might be worth it. We get a chance to grow a future leader. If we don’t do it, the engineer might quit. If we let the engineer give it a try and it doesn’t work, then the person would probably come back as a superstar engineer. And if the person becomes a great sales person, then we have a multi-disciplinary person in sales.

      I think this is largely what happened with Sheryl Sandberg at Google. She got in early, she proved herself in one domain, the powers that be let her take on new areas where her skills were not yet proven (because she had an internal track record) and as a result she grew her skills.

      To be sure she had a lot of talent going in. But so do a lot of people. She also had the OPPORTUNITY to stretch.

      This is a facet of picking an employer that many overlook. Do such opportunities exist within the company? In many small companies such opportunities exist by default. In larger companies that are more rigidly defined, such opportunities tend to need to be more formalized. GE’s high potential program is one example.

      -Victor

  • navya Jan 28, 2014, 12:06 pm

    i was looking for a solution ,but i got an oppourtunity through this article

  • Alexander Jan 28, 2014, 11:10 am

    Hello Victor,

    Great article.

    I’m fully head on in the zone of discomfort since 18 months, when I decided to quit my previous miserable job and get back to study (MBA), convinced it was the right choice for a meaningful career change.
    I am in the middle of the “storm” and the pain level increases almost every day.

    Still, I remain optimistic, though sometimes I am frustrated of not yet being through the process and not yet with the best opportunity in my hands.

    I have fully embraced the equation: discomfort=growth

    I hope and work hard to get there, and I believe I will make it, I am honest with myself and it will happen, I know it will.
    It’s “just'” a matter of “time, energy and/or money”!

    Many Thanks for your insightful article,
    Alexander

    • Victor Cheng Jan 31, 2014, 2:39 am

      Alexander,

      Keep at it and good luck.

      -Victor

  • Abhi Jan 28, 2014, 10:53 am

    Hey Victor,

    You have been very forthcoming and honest of your own issues in the past so that we can learn from it which makes you the Zen master of Consulting.

    I keep all your emails in a separate folder and keep visiting them and it keeps me to the basics.

    More power to you,

    Abhishek

    • Victor Cheng Jan 31, 2014, 2:39 am

      Abhishek,

      You are very kind. Thank you.

      -Victor

  • Raymond Jan 28, 2014, 9:59 am

    Victor,

    This was my mental breakfast for the morning for sure. I have always said nothing truly desired comes easy and have been in a rut as of late getting motivated to be uncomfortable, despite my disdain for how things are currently in my professional life.

    This has triggered me to get up and throw myself out there and see what comes back to me, and to learn from whatever it is that knocks on my door. So thank you for the renewed sense of purpose with this read!

    Raymond G.

    • Victor Cheng Jan 31, 2014, 2:38 am

      Raymond,

      Good luck! A part of being uncomfortable (actually a big part of it) is not knowing how things will turn out. It’s hard, but if you can embrace that as a healthy tension it often works out well in the long run.

      -Victor

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