Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read a book entitled The Phoenix Project. This book has been in my Kindle library for some time, but only this weekend did I make time to read it – and I’m glad I did. The story centers around a guy who is more or less forced out of his comfort zone and into a whole new environment. The protagonist of the story had a great job where things were running like clockwork, but was thrust into a world he didn’t think he was ready for. I won’t give away the story, but it’s safe to say that he learned a lot about his environment and himself by getting out of the safety of the nest he had built in his prior gig.
This story spoke to me on a number of levels. The biggest emotional jab for me was a reminder of when I was in a similar position not so many years ago. I was working for a small hospital, and had worked my way through a years-long implementation of a new software product. I still had the battle scars from that implementation, but in the year or so since that massive rollout, things had been relatively quiet. I had spent that year repaying some technical debt from the implementation. I wasn’t yet completely satisfied with the integrity or efficiency of our systems, nor had I cleared my plate of all of my projects. However, I was relaxed. Things were peaceful. I was comfortable.
And in hindsight, I wasn’t growing. I had built myself a nest, but was no longer trying to fly.
I recall that, even in my comfort, I was unhappy. A calm sea does not make a skilled sailor, and I knew that my skills would eventually atrophy. It was time to move on, even if it led to some discomfort.
Here’s another life lesson: When you go looking for discomfort, you’ll find it every time.
I left my nest to become a full time consultant. I had done some moonlighting before, but had never really worked as a consultant. I found a great gig with a fantastic consulting company, but in spite of my supportive environment, I felt much more out-of-place than I let on. I doubted my technical skills, and for a time, became convinced that I simply didn’t have the soft skills to be a consultant. I learned quickly that impostor syndrome is a real thing. It was safe to say that I was no longer comfortable. I had found my discomfort zone.
But when I look back on those early years of consulting, my discomfort led me to learn a lot. When I doubted my technical skills, I would overcompensate by diving head-first into the areas in which I felt the least confident. I would rehearse every presentation and speech over and over until I felt like less of a fraud. I paid close attention to my failures – which, in my estimation, were many – to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake twice.
When I look back on my career, the times of most significant growth have not been when I had built a comfortable environment around me. It was in those times when I took a step into the unknown, not certain I would thrive but armed with just enough confidence to let myself try, that allowed me to grow and learn. And my situation is not unique – I hear the same story from many, many others.
Where is your discomfort zone? It is easy to find but challenging to survive. But it’s so, so worth it.
Author’s note: This post originally appeared on my Data Geek Newsletter.