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
  • Mohit Feb 12, 2014, 11:44 am

    Hi Victor,
    Thanks for the article.
    I recollect one of your earlier articles wherein you mentioned that one needs to leverage one’s strengths to be a superstar..I was wondering if there is some contradiction between this article and the earlier one ?

    Thanks
    Mohit

    • Victor Cheng Feb 12, 2014, 9:33 pm

      Mohit,

      If one focused on ones weaknesses, that would indeed create discomfort and over time that weakness would be less severe.

      On the flip side, if one focused on developing one strengths into advanced skills, that too would create discomfort and over time that strength would become even more exceptional.

      The willingness to embrace discomfort is the key to growth in ones skills. Focusing this willingness for discomfort towards one strengths has a faster and bigger return on investment.

      The way I think about it is my favorite basketball player of all time is Michael Jordan. Arguably he was the most talented player of all time (e.g., he had enormous strengths in basketball).

      What is much less know about Michael Jordan is he might have been the player who practiced more than anyone else in all time. From very early on, he was got to practice early, he stayed late and was the last to leave.

      Sure he was extremely talented, but he also developed his skills.

      I don’t know if this applies to Jordan, but I suspect it might. Most basketball players favor their dominant hand. Right handed basketball players find dribbling and shooting with their right hand easier, than their non dominant hand.

      Many of the elite players realize this makes them predictable. So at some point, some will deliberately do everything they are good at in basketball but entirely with their weak hand. In these cases, they are focusing on their strengths (basketball) but forcing themselves to be uncomfortable in developing a “local” weakness (left handed play) within their strength area.

      Going further with the Michael Jordan example, perhaps he was considering multiple career choices. He could focus on basketball or perhaps seek to be say a management consultant.

      Sure going into consulting would cause discomfort for Jordan and no doubt with a work ethic like his he would eventually get better in those skill areas. But stepping back strategically, his improvement and success per hour of effort expended would be higher in basketball than in consulting.

      So growth almost always involves some discomfort. Whether such growth in strategically focused around strengths or not, is a separate but equally important decision.

      Victor

    • Victor Cheng Feb 12, 2014, 9:34 pm

      Mohit,

      By the way, I thought you asked a very insightful question.

      Victor

      • Mohit Feb 13, 2014, 4:22 am

        Thanks Victor!
        The whole idea of discomfort is much more clearer to me now… it indeed is very critical for excellence..
        Thanks a lot

  • Facundo Feb 5, 2014, 12:27 am

    Dear victor,

    I can’t agree more with what you wrote here. I have learned to seek for discomfort zones over time, is where I was able to find growth, porfessionally and personally

    Right now i am definitely in the middle of my career’s discomfort zone, i am working as a business consultant for a multinational company in Argentina but i have lost part of the excitement for the job. That is why, eventhough I got my degree in economics only a year ago, I have started studying again, and something completely new, programming.
    Now i am excited about my new discomfort zone theme, and I ask myself should i change jobs, move from consulting into an IT junior position and start all over again or should I continue to grow as a consultant and maybe some day use the skills i am learning for some personal project for example.
    I am worried about spending too little time in different careers, what if this happens again and in 2 years i am looking for a new career, how can i merge my interests into 1 career path? Is this a downside to constantly seeking our own discomfort zone?

    Regards

  • Andreea Jan 30, 2014, 4:47 pm

    hi Victor,

    :) I am in a complete uncomfortable zone right now. and by choice, so I know it will be very good for me on a long term.

    thanks for the article!

    • Victor Cheng Jan 31, 2014, 2:58 am

      Andrea,

      Just make sure your discomfort is with a sense of purpose and strategy. It IS possible to be perpetually uncomfortable and go nowhere. The key is making the right choices… particularly one where there is a big long term benefit, but there is a short-term tradeoff. These are the best discomfort zones to be in.

      A permanent discomfort zone you want to avoid is being in say a dead end job with no future. There is pain in the short run, and there is pain in the long run. There is no scenario that doesn’t have pain. This is not a good situation to be in to say the least.

      So just make sure your situation sounds more like the former than the latter.

      -Victor

  • Francisco Jan 30, 2014, 3:25 pm

    Dear Mr. Victor Cheng, thanks again for this bright article, and for helping other good souls in order to accomplish their fulfillments along the road.
    Since I started my first job, and even in High school, I did not realize until now, that I have been always struggling in the Zone of discomfort.

    I remember the first time I got hired by a multinational company in Ecuador where I had the choice to choose between the sales or marketing. I always have been told that corporate sales is a good school to start a career in the corporate ladder. However,as you said on your article, this endeavor was tough and I could not achieved my sales skills.

    Afterwards, and in every job that I have had through my carreer , I have been always curious to learn something new along the different areas of the corporations, and in most of them, where I had not previous experience at all.

    The weakness I have found on this approach to the zone of discomfort is that always your superiors can used you, or even manipulate you as an “effective dumb”.

    My questions are:
    Is kind of acceptable to have regrets after trying in the dark?
    For how long do you think is a healthy period to try the “zone of discomfort” considering that someone could be prevented from success financially and professionally?

    • Victor Cheng Jan 31, 2014, 3:09 am

      Regret is a human emotion. It is always acceptable to feel any emotion you happen to be feeling. To ignore such emotions is to invite self medication via various addictions or extreme behaviors. Now it may not be acceptable to behave towards others based on those feelings (if you’re angry, it is okay to feel angry, but not okay to shoot somebody with a gun).

      I personally prefer pursuing opportunities in the zone of discomfort that are conducive to getting feedback on my progress. Having lived in Silicon Valley for 10 years, the big drawback of silicon valley is that in some startups you don’t really get much feedback on your progress. This is especially the case for startups that are deliberately losing money.

      In those cases, you are either a billionaire or you are broke. This is hard because without the frequency of feedback it is hard to gauge your progress and to improve.

      I much prefer businesses with actual cash flow, because there is a built in barometer (called cash flow, sales, profit, etc…) that tells you if things are working.

      Not everyone may be pursuing an entrepreneurial type opportunity. In those cases, it is worth thinking through in advanced how you are going to be able to tell if you are making progress.

      If you can numerically measure progress, then try to define in advanced how you would qualitatively describe progress in the terms of key milestones. The time table is up to you. How much progress do you need to see (and how will you determine it) within in what time frame to keep on going?

      It is useful to decide this in advanced AND WRITE IT DOWN. It is much to easy to lie to oneself and continually revise the criteria in the midst of it when one is highly emotional and least likely to be objective. Define the criteria when you have nothing yet at stake.

      Good luck,
      -Victor

  • Nikolay Jan 30, 2014, 5:16 am

    Victor, many thanks for your article!

    How one can love being discomfortable? I see all the benefits that lie ahead but making a step into pain – what are the best ways to motivate yourself?

    • Victor Cheng Jan 31, 2014, 3:03 am

      Nikolay,

      You just asked the million dollar question.

      Ultimately, your DESIRE > Discomfort

      Basically you should only pursue opportunities you want really badly because if you don’t want it enough, you will give up before you get through the zone of discomfort to the other side.

      This is why sometimes it is easier to achieve a bigger goal than a more modest one. Logical would say an opportunity with difficultly level 6 would be easier to achieve than one with difficulty level 8. BUT, in practice this is now always the case.

      Perhaps the opportunity with difficulty level 6 has an excitement level of 6. And perhaps the opportunity with difficulty level 8, actually has an excitement level of 15.

      In that case, it is actually easier to tackle the more difficult challenge because it happens to be the more exciting one to the person in question.

      This is the Steve Jobs mantra of come work for me and lets “Change the World”. That is absurdly difficult to do, yet really exciting too.

      So if you are having trouble motivating yourself, not amount of motivational technique will help much. Consider picking a bigger, more exciting, more passionate, or more ambitious goal.

      -Victor

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