Do something uncomfortable today. By stepping out of your box, you don’t have to settle for what you are–you get to create who you want to become. ~Howard Walstein
Work satisfaction fluctuates. We have peaks where we feel in the zone with every shot hitting the back of the net when we can’t wait to jump out of bed and dive into the excitement of the office. We also have valleys where work feels mundane or, worse, everything we try fails, and we would rather be inoculated with a long, fat needle than step into our place of employment.
Looking back over the three decades of my career, I see most peaks occurred when I was taking on new responsibilities requiring me to learning at an exponential rate. The growth experienced being in an intensive learning phase was an important factor which lead to performance highs.
Some of these experiences align with my first projects as a Project Manager. In 2006, I lead a program piloting both offshoring and scrum on a high visibility project requiring learning on technical and personal fronts. I experienced a high peak when I created and taught a leadership development course, and a loftier peak when I moved to India for an 18 month assignment. In each of theses instances, I navigated uncharted territory requiring intensive, on the fly learning to keep afloat. They were amazing experiences.
My lows tended to correlate with the seasons when I was comfortable, when I was floating along on skills previously developed in a peak phase. I had slowly slid from peak to average. The work I was doing in these seasons was good, projects were in control, deadlines were met. But, I was not excited. The work had become routine. Mundane.
If I was to characterize the lows in one word that word would be comfortable. I tend to get bored when my work becomes comfortable. I am not a big fan of routine. I get excited starting a new project however, once it is running smoothly, my excitement level tapers off.
My comfort becomes complacency. I recently realized, I have been in a comfort zone ever since returning from assignment in India.
Feeling comfortable is a warning sign, my “Danger! Will Robinson!” As I teach in my leadership courses, being comfortable is dangerous for anyone in a leadership position. If a leader is not living uncomfortable they are not growing their leadership capabilities. If a leader is not continually growing, they are cheating the people they are serving. The non learning leader has broken the social contract that says you will perform your best on the project and I will be the best possible lead I can be.
Liz Wiseman, in her book, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work, characterizes rookie smarts as being in a fast learning mode. She postulates that we are possibly at our best when we are naive, a rookie. As a rookie, we are hungry to learn and humble enough to know we don’t have the answers. We are able to approach a situation unencumbered with preconceived notions leading to discovery and innovation and unique solutions to problems. This theory definitely applies to the peaks and lows of my career.
Going to India, was a purposeful choice that completely disrupted my way of life requiring me to learn to work in a new culture and ended up being the most exciting phase of my 30 year career in Industry. The leadership training course I created and still teach required me to consolidate 20 years of study on the topic and distill it into 6 classes. This was the 2nd most exciting phase in my career.
In both cases I had to learn fast and continually adapt to dynamic, unfamiliar situations. I was a true rookie. I was growing daily. I was extremely excited, happy, work days seemed to last minutes not hours. And the feedback from the people I lead or taught was very positive. So, I think Liz with her ideas on Rookie Smarts is on to something here.
Taking on these new tasks disrupted the flow of my career, disrupted it in a positive way. I am at my best when working as a rookie so I am making a career change which will include hard wired disruption points to help prevent me from becoming comfortable. This will provide an avenue for me to jump from peak to peak and, hopefully, minimizing most of the lows.
A typical disruptive cycle starts out in unfamiliar territory which can be stressful. When we can get past the early nerves the learning takes off and grows at an exponential rate until most of the subject is familiar and the learning tapers off.
I want to live in the learning zone so I am moving into contract work which by its temporal nature has built-in disruption points. Contract work will also bounce me into new industries another source of disruption.
Not everyone enjoys disruption or performs their best in an environment built on shifting sands. For some, joy comes in building upon a solid foundation where they can hone their skills to a level approaching perfection. These craftsmen are highly valuable to an organization.
If you do prefer a dynamic, intensive environment, I have a recommendation.
Ensure there are disruption points in your career that force you to become a fast learning rookie again. Take on increasingly challenging assignments requiring the development of new skills.
If you write code, try your hand at architecting an application. If you are a Workstation developer try your hand at firmware. If you are a local project lead, branch into leading a multicultural global project which is infinitely more complicated virtually guaranteeing growth.
Create a new beginning by starting a program that taps into your passion as I did when I branched into leadership training. Take an assignment in a different county. This extreme change will require the development of a brand new set of interpersonal skills at a very rapid rate. It’s sink or swim.
If you don’t wire in disruption points, you run the risk of someone else doing it for you. Wouldn’t you prefer to manage your own career?