Stay Uncomfortable, My Friends

(By Mike Raftery)

Last week, I spent a day out of my comfort zone. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. My project was just starting a critical phase, and taking a day off in the middle of a week to attend a design conference was not an easy sacrifice. However, I went, and despite the leap out of my IT nerd bubble, it was an invaluable event, and I ended up learning quite a bit. In today’s micro-market-segmented-social-media world, it is increasingly tempting and very feasible to stay inside your little comfort bubble. Resist that urge and get out there. I’m glad I did, and here’s what I learned from it.

1. There’s Nothing More Powerful Than a Motivated Entrepreneur

After living in the corporate world either as a contractor or an employee, you just become numb to bureaucracy.   I know it happened to me; after about 12 years you don’t even realize how the bureaucracy has a life of its own. However, after listening to a few of these entrepreneurs, it was almost shocking to realize how fast they move. There is nothing more powerful than a motivated individual who completely believes in their idea and has the means to achieve it.

One example centered on bringing portable power generators to developing nations that used farm refuse as fuel. This idea went from idea, to concept, to impacting lives in little over a year. I’ve been involved in budget requests that go two years, and here’s this guy actually changing the world in the meantime. Not just IT world either: real worldly concepts that are directly improving people’s lives. You can’t hear that story and feel a bit embarrassed admitting that you are a part of corporate America.

Afterwards, I sat down and thought, why can’t it be like that in corporate America? The answer comes down to “Trust.” Corporations don’t trust people, so they set up systems to proceduralize responsibility. And since the responsibility lies in the process, the people don’t feel ownership. Corporations don’t trust their people, people diffuse responsibility until they’re not responsible for anything, and it’s a perfect system of proceduralizing trust. It would be great if we could trust everyone just to get the job done, but we can’t. That’s the downfall of the scale of the corporation. When it’s people that you trust and you share the same passion, it’s easy to trust and accomplish something. When a corporation of hundreds or thousands takes shape, the passion is difficult to keep up.

So while we all need a little process, try and trust someone a little more than you would normally do, directly assign responsibility, and hold them accountable to it. It might not make every corporation a start-up, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

2. Own Your Edges; Stay Uncomfortable

Learn something new. The best way to know yourself is to know your limits. Pushing those limits is the best way to grow and discover all kinds of new things about yourself and your life. And more often than not, you might just discover that your limits are not even where you thought they were in the first place. This is how we grow, professionally and personally.

If you are staying uncomfortable, it means you are doing it right. I once heard that if you were ever 100% sure of something, then you’ve waited too long. Growth is uncomfortable, and the new skills and new perspective you gain will make that discomfort worth it every time.

The world is becoming more competitive, and the playing field is becoming very even. If you’re not growing and pushing yourself and owning those edges, there’s someone else out there who is. And that is your motivation.

Finally, the self-confidence boost that challenging yourself brings cannot be underestimated. Win or lose, you learn about yourself and move forward. As a smarter, more aware and more experienced individual, this cannot help but breed self-confidence. And self-confidence is a huge talent multiplier.

3. The Rise of the Problem Solvers

A design conference would not at first seem to have much overlap with a self-professed IT supply chain nerd (not necessarily in that order). However, the skills and talents that I see around me in successful individuals are the same traits I saw in every speaker on stage. They are problem solvers. Not a single one of them got up on stage by saying “nobody told me how to do it.” These people all saw a problem, some seemingly impossible problems, and just went to work. They didn’t ask if it could be done; they just went out and did it.

This is a skill that cannot be commoditized. While many jobs have become commodities, there are those that rise above. Those are the ones that can get it done. That skill can’t be taught; you can’t read about how to be this way in a book. It is a curiosity that exists that drives these people, and they will always succeed in the end. The curiosity to keep after a problem, even when it isn’t easy. The drive to just to get it done, paired with fearlessness of the responsibility to make it happen.

This is what separates the men from the boys in today’s corporate jungle. No matter what advantages someone has going into a job, the problem solvers will always win.

(Side note: one guy was an actual puzzle author like Will Shortz. He was awesome, but that’s a very literal interpretation of this little observation.)

So my challenge to those of you who read this is this: one time this week, step outside of your comfort zone. Read a new magazine, attend a random lecture, even just go to a different lunch place and start up a conversation. With any luck, you’ll learn something new and find an edge that you didn’t know existed or walk right past where you thought one should be.

Anyone interested in my particular little jaunt out of my comfort bubble can look up this particular conference at It was a great show, and I hope to see you all there next year!

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