No one can be 100% prepared for anything. Take parenthood as an example. You could carefully plan when you want to have kids, read all the experts’ books on being a great parent, and spend ample time around kids before ever having your own, but really there is no way to be fully ready to be a parent. Like everything else in life, personal experience has no substitute. That is why, as a professional, you have to experience new things; you have to take on challenges in order to grow your career.
So what stops us from doing that? It is human nature – We are comfortable doing what we know. Both economists and psychologists have discovered that humans are risk averse. More specifically, psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, determined that people are risk averse in choices involving gains, whereas if we know that there is a potential for loss, we are more risk-seeking. In most cases, taking on a challenge professionally doesn’t come with an obvious loss. Typically, no one is telling us to try something new or else be negatively impacted. Of course, there could potentially be gains from trying something new, but we’d rather stick with what we know we are good at.
But taking on new challenges is critical to our career growth. It provides us the opportunity to learn and develop in ways we couldn’t have without that experience. For example, imagine you have just signed up to run a marathon for the first time. This is indeed quite a challenge. It requires training, not something you can do automatically (“Oh, I think I’ll just go run a marathon today!”). It is unlikely you will win or run your personal best time the first go around, but the experience makes you a better runner. You’ve learned things through the experience, such as how fast to run, what to listen to on your ipod, what to eat before and after, what your body feels like during and after a long run, etc. The experience, though challenging, though not automatically successful, has helped you to grow.
There are many ways you can take on challenges at work:
- Ask your boss what else they need help with.
- Get involved in activities outside your immediate project.
- Accept challenges offered to you. Be a “yes” person – especially early on in your career.
- Follow your interests and passions, even if you aren’t good at them yet.
- Get to know new people and what they are working on. Have a work dinner coming up? Don’t just sit with the people you work with every day.
- If you recognize an issue impacting your organization, offer to take it on and create a solution.
The key is to recognize your own stagnation: Are you still learning something new every day? Is the work you do hard anymore? Are you bringing innovative ideas forward? If not, it may be time to take a risk and try something new.
Be challenged, be uncomfortable, make mistakes, fail a little. That’s how you grow and become truly successful in your career. Yes, it does require some risk, venturing from the known, what you are good at, to the unknown, but that is how great leaders develop.