You have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations in order to learn and grow and become your best.
If you’re always doing things you know you can do, then you are missing opportunities to learn about yourself. You need to be testing your limits. Expanding your horizons. Collecting and curating the experiences you need in order to prepare yourself.
Sometimes the most transformative experiences are the ones that you don’t intend to have. The ones that are thrust on you. And you then discover things about yourself you otherwise wouldn’t have known.
My father steps up
In my father’s case, he was 15 years old and traveling back to school in Beijing from his home in Shanghai by boat. Worried about his traveling alone for the first time, his mother arranged for a responsible adult, Mrs. Wang, to take him along with her own three children.
Within an hour of leaving the port in Shanghai, Mrs. Wang became seasick. She was so ill that she couldn’t get out of bed. My father ended up looking after her as well as her three kids for the entire journey, including finding food and medicine and babysitting the children. As a result, my father realized that he could do anything! It was a great confidence builder.
In my case, I was given a choice.
The challenge I said “no” to
I was in New York at the time. Having been given new responsibilities 12 months previously, I was finally feeling like I had things just about under control. I had been through a whole annual cycle and gotten my bearings. The travel was manageable, and I had gotten my job “in a box” sufficiently to be able to spend most weekends at home with my husband and three young children. Things were going well.
Then, I was asked if I wanted to move to London and start up the corporate bond origination business for the firm. A big new opportunity driven by the advent of the euro currency.
I said no.
Why would I want to leave the role I had only recently been given, uproot my entire family and take on this big new challenge 3,000 miles away from home base?
It scared me just to think about it. It was ludicrous. Obviously out of the question.
We all need a push
When I got home and told my husband, he surprised me by saying, “of course you should do it.”
Not only did he see it as a great career opportunity for me, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our children to experience another culture. Plus, as far as he was concerned, this would be “golf heaven” since the UK is where the game was invented. Maybe he could finally fulfill his dream of becoming a “scratch” golfer (which means shooting par on every hole – a very good thing in golf).
That was the push I needed to step up and say yes. Something I wouldn't have had the guts to do if left to my own devices.
So I sheepishly went back to my boss the next morning (“Er, you know that London thing I turned down yesterday? Is it still available?”), and the rest is history.
The confidence boost
As it turns out, going to London was a great career experience and the whole family loved it. 18 years later, it’s still home.
We’ll never know what would have happened if we had stayed in New York, but there’s no question in my mind that I became a more effective leader and manager as a result. Mainly because the assignment stretched me to my very limits, and coming out okay at the other end gave me confidence to tackle just about any challenge that gets thrown my way.
In life, there are challenges that we seek out, and others that are thrust upon us. Both are good. What matters is that we continue to be challenged. It’s the only way to learn, grow and improve.
The most important thing it teaches you is this: you can and will rise to the occasion. You may not do everything perfectly, but what matters is that you do it, and keep getting back on the horse when you’re thrown off.
And by the way, you can expect to get thrown off from time to time, even if you’re a super successful achiever. It just means you’re pushing yourself forward, which is a good thing. In fact, you’ll learn even more when you have those bumps in the road, and will have more tools in your arsenal for the next time.
How you can rise to the occasion
When it comes to facing that new challenge, here are a few things to keep in mind to help you rise to the occasion.
1. Adopt a bias toward action
Of course you want to do your “due diligence” and explore the benefits and risks of the new endeavor before jumping in. And definitely consult with your mentors and personal “brain trust” to make sure you understand the pitfalls as well as potential.
But all things equal, you’ll grow and develop more if your bias is toward “yes”. Grabbing that new challenge is likely to provide a superior opportunity to learn and to be visible versus staying where you are and doing the same things you’ve always done.
As the saying goes, “who dares wins”.
2. Negotiate the conditions for success
Make sure you’ve identified what needs to be true in order for you to fulfill the challenge successfully. This is important to do not only on your own behalf, but it’s also in the interest of your organization. After all, it’s in both parties’ interests for you to succeed and deliver that great result.
So remember to agree what success looks like, and ask for the resources needed to achieve that positive outcome. And leave open the opportunity to revisit this at an intermediate point when you know more.
3. Remember that human beings do this
Once you’ve taken on the challenge, no one is expecting super human effort so don’t burn yourself out. Manage yourself and your time well.
Resist the urge to put undue pressure on yourself to perform everything perfectly right now. Speaking from experience, this can backfire if taken to an extreme.
Even now, I can hear my French team member quoting to me from French philosopher Voltaire who said, “Le mieux est l’enemi du bien”. This translates to “perfect is the enemy of good enough”. And we humans are definitely not perfect.
4. Keep your wits about you
It’s important to stay in the moment when you’re facing a challenge. That way, you can more accurately take stock of what’s going on around you, observe how others are reacting, and respond in the appropriate way.
It’s also what allows you to be resourceful and creative in getting what you need in order to achieve the goals you’ve set.
5. Don't take things personally
It helps to find some ease and enjoyment even as you’re dealing with the new and unknown. When you’re “loose”, you’re better able to let things roll off your back and not take things personally.
Those of us who are overly earnest have a harder time with this one, but it’s definitely worth reminding yourself that “it’s nothing personal”.
6. Relate it to something you know
It’s helpful to find the connection between your new challenge and some aspect of the familiar. This makes it easier to find your flow and to feel more comfortable.
For example, if you’re managing a team for the first time, then could you recall the style and approach of a great team leader you’ve experienced in the past? Perhaps it’s the coach of a sports team. Or if you’re speaking at your first board meeting, could you channel Diane from TV show The Good Wife? And sometimes it will be a combination of different experiences that will help the most.
7. Keep going
I can guarantee you that you’ll face tough going and head winds for at least part of the journey of doing something challenging. That’s why it’s important to have done that due diligence up front to make sure there’s a high likelihood that it will be worth it.
And when those moments, weeks or months come up, you have to just keep going. Keep your eye on the bigger goal. Find moments of ease and enjoyment. Don’t take things too seriously.
In the words of Winston Churchill, “When you’re going through hell, just keep going.”
Taking up your challenge
Now, go out and find the challenge you want to take on next. Or take on the challenge you’ve been offered after you’ve done your homework and negotiated for the conditions needed for success.
It’s the best way to ensure that you keep learning, keep growing, and keep moving forward. It’s also a great way to build your confidence.
So, what’s the challenge you will take on to stretch yourself and build greater confidence? Leave a comment below and let me know.