Discomfort is the currency of success

When starting our careers, it’s amazing how much risk we’re willing to take, and how much discomfort we are willing to accommodate. We are ambitious, competitive, and want to show others what we’re made of.

Over time, however, we feel like there are other areas of our lives that we feel we need to protect. So we take less risk.

There’s nothing wrong with this. But when clients come to me confused about why they aren’t being promoted into the most senior executive levels, why they are not meeting their very aggressive performance metrics on the job despite all the time they’re putting into it, or why they are not respected by their peers, I ask them, “When was the last time you took a significant risk?”

I’m not talking about the foolish risk that sometimes comes with youth. I’m talking about the kind of risk that comes with butterflies in your stomach, that nervousness riding alongside passion. I’m talking about the risk that results in the discomfort of growth.

Smart people in mid-career somehow get the notion that success should no longer be “hard” to achieve. “Hard” things are for the young. It’s putting in your dues. “Hard” things are for the times when you didn’t know what you were doing but you were learning by leaps and bounds. By the time we’ve achieved some level of status and expertise, we ought to be able to simply do our work well and see the beautiful fruits of our labor. After all, we’ve put in those dues, right?

Not if you want more.

At executive levels, you’re pushing the envelope still, but in completely different ways than you did when you were coming up. This means that there is really nothing to rest upon, nothing that you should think of coasting on. If you have aggressive performance goals, if you are trying to break into the C Suite, or if you are trying to shift to a different level of industry expertise, then get ready to be really uncomfortable.

You have to be willing to feel the discomfort of growth and risk in order to achieve the levels of performance you seek.

This is what risk and discomfort look like at this level:

  • You’re doing something that no one’s done before. You’ve done all the research, you’re prepared and everyone around you is prepared, but you’re in uncharted territory, so you’re nervous.
  • You have everything it takes to make significant changes, but other people don’t know it yet. You’re going to face skeptics on a good day and haters on a bad day, but you’re willing to push through to get a fantastic result. You know it’s going to be rocky for a while, maybe a long while.
  • Or maybe you’re the Lone Wolf. Conventional wisdom says one thing, but you know the opposite is true. You decide to prove it. Most of your colleagues may distance themselves, but you’re really trying to reach the people who respect solid evidence and are willing to work with you.

In each of these scenarios, and many more, you have to be willing to feel the discomfort of growth and risk in order to achieve the levels of performance you seek. Whether it’s doing something nobody’s done before, demonstrating that you have what it takes up level, or going against conventional wisdom, you need to be prepared for the discomfort that comes with this level of achievement.

We all did great things early in our careers. Chances are, for most of the bold moves we were making, there was risk involved, and we were experiencing a pretty consistent level of nervous jitters associated with taking calculated risks and capitalizing on opportunities.

If you want to level up now, you’re going to need more of the same.

Go chase those jitters. It’s the currency of success.


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