Why I Stopped Playing Out of My Comfort Zone at Work
I used to think professional development meant improving on my weaknesses. In fact, I once took a sales job with a high-end appliance company just to do that.
I was all in, at first. I embraced a crash course on different products, the sales cycle, how to spark leads, connect with people and close deals. But after a few months of monotonous conversations about appliance features and which package was best suited, the novelty wore off, and I started to plan my next move.
It didn’t play into my strengths. I like being creative, connecting the dots, identifying and building out opportunities that don’t yet exist (skills that aren’t exactly required in a 9-to-5 sales gig). It’s the reason I’ve always been drawn to startups and why I tend to exit a business when it reaches an operational level that no longer requires inventive problem solving.
My time in sales changed my approach to professional development. I’ve stopped focusing on my shortcomings and instead turned my attention to what I do well. Equally important: I surround myself with people who excel in areas where I lack passion and skill.
The benefits of playing into your strengths are real, both for individuals and organizations. Research from Gallup shows that people who use their strengths every day at work are six times more likely to be engaged by their jobs, 8 percent more productive and 15 percent less likely to leave. Teams that can focus on their strengths every day have 12.5 percent higher productivity.
Too often we’re told to push outside our comfort zone, but what if the reason we’re hesitant to pursue a task, challenge or a particular area of business is that our skills and interests simply don’t align with it?
Over-Developing Weaknesses Impedes Performance
If building on your strengths sets you up for success, fixating on over-developing your weaknesses can crush your performance and potential. Spending most of your time working on things you simply aren’t wired for will make you and others question what you’re able to achieve.
There are always going to be parts of a job description you don’t like (for me, it’s the all-consuming company audits once a year). But having a clear understanding of your strengths opens the door to opportunities that will help you enhance them. The key is to be vocal about what you’re good at and put your hand up for projects where you can bring real value.
The reality is most leaders don’t always focus on helping employees use their strengths. In fact, only 3 percent of employees surveyed by Gallup identified with its Strength Orientation Index, developed to determine how successful U.S. businesses are at creating a workplace that cultivates employees’ strengths. The good news is when employees take the initiative—setting weekly goals and expectations based on their strengths, having quarterly discussions with their leaders to discuss their strengths and identifying the strengths of their closest colleagues—the workplace experience can vastly improve.
COVID Has Changed What Skills We Value at Work
This isn’t to say professional development should only focus on strengths. There are core skills that everybody needs to improve on, even if they don’t come naturally. This is a lesson the pandemic crystallized.
In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that as many as 375 million workers—or 14 percent of the global workforce—would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and AI. The pandemic only accelerated the need for adaptability in the workplace and highlighted the importance of other skills like focus, self-regulation and time management.
These are skills that will only grow in importance because of their ability to add long-term value. Focus is one skill I struggled with early in my entrepreneurial journey and then again when the pandemic hit. When it comes to keeping on task, the office is my comfort zone. That’s where I’m most efficient and able to cut through distractions. Regaining that focus at home pushed me and took the support of tools and training (meditation, the Pomodoro time tracker app, fitness breaks and more). I made the effort because I understood the long-term return of the investment.
The key is identifying when discomfort is helping you grow and when it’s signaling that you’re playing in the wrong lane.
Taking Risks Should Come With High Reward
As a leader, it’s important to create an environment where people are engaged, but collectively we’re doing a poor job. In 2019, a Gallup report showed only 35 percent of employees are engaged at work. Part of this is due to the fact that we’re not distributing work in a way that recognizes and builds on people’s strengths and interests.
For example, in my office, we have two talented professionals who lead our marketing and communications efforts. One is brilliant at strategy and design but has zero interest in being a company spokesperson. The other has a gift for storytelling and a real desire to connect externally with existing and potential stakeholders.
If a public speaking opportunity came up, I would encourage the storyteller to push through any hesitations and discomfort she might have to take it. It’s a skill that aligns with her natural ability, as well as her personal and professional goals, and would likely build her confidence and energize her. For the strategist, however, it would likely just detract from her overall job satisfaction and even affect her perceived worth or self-confidence.
We all have a desire to conquer fears, achieve success and grow. With our work and personal lives blending together, it’s more important than ever to distinguish when our efforts enhance our natural interest and capabilities and when they are simply better suited for someone else.
Mitchell Demeter is a serial entrepreneur and pioneering figure in the cryptocurrency industry. Having gained worldwide attention for launching the world’s first Bitcoin ATM, Mitchell now serves as president of Netcoins, a trading platform that makes it easy for anyone to buy, sell and understand cryptocurrency.