Escape your comfort zone to advance your career

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today's post is by Dawn Graham.


Constant reinvention is the new normal in today’s ever-changing marketplace, and if you don’t want to become obsolete in your career, you need a strategy to continue to expand your skills and network.

While seminars, conferences and online content are helpful, the best strategy to fast-track your career is to put yourself in professional situations where you are the least qualified in the room.

This strategy takes guts. It can be uncomfortable and requires a release of ego, but if you want to catapult your success, you need to be willing to take some risks.

By pursuing professional situations where you are still a novice, yet have some basic foundational knowledge, you’re essentially forcing yourself to learn quickly due to a self-created “sink or swim” scenario. 

So, it’s not just about tackling new experiences -- this is a given. It’s about putting yourself into situations where the outcomes matter. Anyone can study French on an interactive app in their living room, but if you sign up to lead the product launch in Paris in two months, now there’s some actual skin in the game.

Also, being the least qualified in the room means that you have experts around you to learn from. It doesn’t mean that you personally don’t have anything to offer, but rather your list of credentials in this particular area may not be as impressive -- yet. So, yes, it feels a little intimidating.

This is a strategy that athletes have used for decades. If you want to be a better swimmer, join a Masters’ Swim team. You may be the slowest one in the pool initially, but you’re progress will skyrocket as you push yourself to swim with the pros and learn from their expertise.

Unfortunately, few people engage this strategy because being the least qualified in the room requires courage and commitment. Many people choose to live life in their comfort zones. This is understandable considering all of the natural stressors that exist (e.g., managing work and family), which make it easy to get complacent and settle for “good enough” in our careers.

In addition, the more competent you get in your field, the fewer risks you are willing to take for fear of making mistakes. It’s easy to convince yourself that your reputation may be tarnished and then to find seemingly “logical” reasons to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you are the little fish in the big pond. Humans are master rationalizers and find a way to justify most decisions.

But if you really want to fast-track your career, you need to consciously step outside of your comfort zone on occasion. In fact, use your fear as a guidepost to point you in the right direction for development. If an opportunity scares you because it’s something you’ve not done before, this might be the perfect assignment to take your career to the next level. Although you may feel unsure at the start, more than likely a few months after starting, you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t dive in with both feet sooner.

Stop wondering how others are getting the great opportunities. To fast-track your career, seek out situations where:

  • Your qualifications are budding, but not quite advanced yet.
  • There is some accountability (e.g., the outcomes matter in some way).
  • You’re surrounded by people who are more qualified than you in this skill.

When you feel uncertain about your ability to succeed in a given area, it’s not unusual for self-doubt to creep in. However, this may be an indicator that you’re moving in the exact right direction!

Happy hunting!


Dawn Graham, Ph.D. is the career director for the MBA Program for Executives at The Wharton School. She is a licensed psychologist, former corporate recruiter, the author of "Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers -- and Seize Success" and hosts SiriusXM Radio's popular call-in show "Career Talk."

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5 ways you can move outside your comfort zone

After 20 years as an investigative agent, I found myself in a comfort zone. Safely ensconced in familiar territory, I balked when asked to be the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. It sounded like fun and even a little glamorous because I would be interviewed by local and national news media. So why did I hesitate when offered the job?

I would move from being the senior agent on my squad, where I knew everything about my job, to a new situation where I knew absolutely nothing. None of my former skills as an investigator prepared me to handle probing questions from reporters.

Over the years, I’d worked counterintelligence, espionage and terrorism cases. But the only time I felt truly terrified was in front of a live TV camera. The FBI needed someone who could come across as witty, credible and polished.

I’m the type of person who comes up with the best retorts about 20 minutes after the question is asked. I needed to learn how to think quicker on my feet.

I had to learn the ropes from the bottom up. I was tempted to feel humiliated by my lack of experience; instead, I felt humbled by all I had yet to learn. There was no resentment, only a slow understanding that we are all students of life.

One of the dumbest things you can do in your career is stay, for years, where you’re comfortable. Not only will you get bored, you’re likely to forget that no job is secure.

The only thing that is secure is your belief in yourself and your ability to contribute to something that matters to you in life. If you maintain that mindset, you’ll find rewarding work no matter where you end up. But to land on your feet, you need to continually push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Successful entrepreneurs, leaders and small-business owners understand that if they want to stay ahead of change, they’ll need to do things that have never been done before. This means taking risk and having people ready to step out of their comfort zones. Innovation requires a mindset that is willing to dive into new and unproven areas.

Here are 5 ways you can move outside your comfort zone:

1. Adapt or die

When you move into the unknown, it’s essential that you adapt to the situation if you want to land on your feet. Assess the best way of interacting with your team. Analyze new information in its context. To be a successful leader, you must evaluate what you think you heard and understand it from different angles.

How to make it work for you: Take what worked for you in the past and modify it to match your new situation. Chances are good that this is not the first time you’ve adapted when you’ve moved into the unknown. Grab and pen and paper and write down your survival tactics and why they worked. Mine your  experiences and let them guide you as you move out of a comfort zone in your current circumstances.

2. Keep your ego in check

Ego looks for ways to prove it is right and others are wrong. When we keep ego in check, there is room for the wisdom of others to get in. We are able to listen more deeply, learn with an open mind, and adapt new skill sets.

The ego is always asking “How will this make me look? How will I benefit?” This is one of the reasons ego resists change. It reminds us that the devil we know is sometimes better than the devil we don’t know. We fear that when we step into the unknown, we will discover painful secrets about the world and about ourselves.

We keep ego in check when we allow ourselves the luxury of trial and error. Like a child who learns to walk, we experience a feel-good neurological response that can be stronger than our ego’s fear of looking like a loser. When we tackle new and difficult challenges, we experience a rush of adrenaline -- a hormone that makes us feel confident and motivated.

How to make it work for you: You can step out of your comfort zone and move the focus away from the ego’s discomfort at the same time. Simply ask yourself, "What am I learning about me? What am I learning about the other people in this situation? How can I use this information in my professional and personal lives?”

3. Summon courage

It takes courage to slap down your ego because you may end up in a situation where you feel awkward, clumsy and alone. This can be especially difficult if you’re in a leadership position and feel you need to continue to hone your core competencies. It’s essential that you realize your comfort zone is a tremendous enemy of peak performance.

When people in leadership get into a comfort zone, they strive to stay right where they have found success. But it is the average leader who stops at success because success and peak performance are often two different things. Whole lives are spent reinforcing mediocre performance.

It takes courage and mental toughness to continually move in the direction of your biggest goals and ambitions and not stop at success.

How to make it work for you: Keep a petri dish of new experiences near you at all times. Pick one of them each day and experiment with it. If it scares you a little, that’s even better. You’re scared, yet you still act. Repeat. Over time, you’ll be amazed at how what once scared you is now a commonplace experience.

4. Avoid stagnation

The more accomplished we are at something, the harder it is to learn. Once we become experts in our field, the need to learn is no longer either urgent or necessary. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that we will fuse our skill with our identity.

When we walk into a discomfort zone and risk failure, it threatens to unravel our identity. Our reaction to learning something new is often fierce and visceral because it can strike at the core of who we believe ourselves to be.

Stagnation often breeds complacency -- you begin to feel a little too comfortable with the status quo. Once we choose not to learn, we risk stagnation. Unfortunately, the only difference between a rut and a coffin are the dimensions.

How to make it work for you: Intrapreneurship is a term coined in the late 1970s. It incorporates the risks and innovative approaches in personal leadership that are associated with entrepreneurship. Start with setting specific goals that define your personal brand, which is the first step in intrapreneurship. These goals define who you are, what you do and for whom you want to do it.

5. Enlarge your core competency

When we move out of our core competency, we often feel vulnerable and weak as leaders. We’ve been successful, and we’ve become inured to having the right answers and confidence in our choices.

A beginner’s mind, on the other hand, is flexible and agile as it leaves behind old assumptions and gropes for new ways to move forward.

This is exactly the mindset we need when confronted with obstacles and adversity! We may not be able to rely upon our developed skills when facing a new barrier or challenge, but if we’ve continually and deliberately placed ourselves in situations that are beyond our core competency, we are more prepared to deal with them.

With experience and practice, we can predict our response to the unknown with greater accuracy. This is another important component of mental toughness -- the ability to choose our response when confronted with the unknown rather than simply react to our circumstances.

How to make it work for you: A beginner’s mind is opening up to the possibilities of what might be. It is a non-grasping, patient and confident understanding of what it means to live our fullest potential. It is having the mental toughness to always be humble and always strive to reach peak performance.

How you do anything is how you do everything.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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The First Jobs of Highly Successful People

Did you know that Meghan Markle, the actress turned Duchess of Sussex, worked as a calligraphy writer?

What would you do if you knew your why?

When I knew that I would be moving on from my role of school headmaster five years ago, I considered two primary pathways forward.

One was another school leadership position. The other was to become a leadership coach and consultant. A variety of factors would point me in the latter direction, which I have been traveling on for the past five years. But this was only possible due to my willingness to open up to new possibilities and not allow myself to become stuck along the one path that I had come to know so well.

In their timeless presentation on the perils of leadership ("Leadership on the Line," HBR Press, 2002) authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky caution leaders to worry less about the form of their work and focus instead on the substance or essence of their contribution. We tend to come to think of ourselves by the form of what we do (“I am a mayor”, “I am a business executive”, “I am a professional athlete”, etc.) and struggle to make sense of things when our positions and status change, voluntarily or not.

Suddenly, the stay-at-home mom with an empty nest, the nonprofit leader who had not been renewed, the politician on the wrong side of an election, the retired technician or the laid-off laborer find themselves disoriented, with a reduced sense of purpose and unclear direction.

Without question, such periods can be difficult and confusing, particularly when they occur suddenly and are imposed upon us. But when a person chooses to identify first by who they are as people and what motivates them in the service of others, they can more easily and confidently move forward.

In my case, this meant focusing on my desire to coach clients to use their skills for the betterment of others around them. While my inner craving to teach and lead certainly could have found expression in a different school leadership position, I chose an alternative and exciting new path to bring these values to life -- a path that also offered me more freedom, control and the capacity to broaden my impact.

For others, their newfound focus on essence may also take them in a different direction. Stories abound of people who left the corporate world and started new lives and businesses around their passions (such as healthy living, the great outdoors, podcasting, blogging and much more) and of retirees who chose to use their golden years to better the world through love and service. The key is to focus less on what you have been and more on what you want to become, give and share. There is never a shortage of ways in which to serve.

Knowing your why

In addition to “substance” and “essence," this concept of focusing inward to identify our deepest beliefs and passions is often referred to as “knowing you why.” Leadership expert Simon Sinek says that it’s not enough to know what you do and how you do it. At our essence, we are most motivated by knowing why we do things. And it’s through that awareness that we can best connect with and sell to others.

While the exercise of knowing one’s why can demand some real inner work, there are some shortcuts to connecting more with one’s essence. Think about the causes and opportunities around you that speak to you. Perhaps you want to get more involved in a local nonprofit or become a corporate trainer who can leverage experiences in a way that helps people grow and develop. Maybe you have had this inner pull towards maintaining a garden and want to bring such awareness and opportunities to others.

Whatever it is, think about how you can serve and start to take steps towards that end. It will be transformative.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to do this before things go sideways on you. No matter where you are in life or how secure your future feels, start to identify opportunities for service and self-fulfillment. These opportunities will bring you joy and purpose long before you think you need them, and they will make your life and interactions that much more fulfilling.   


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new e-book, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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5 ways you can use visualization to achieve top performance

I’ve always been afraid of water. To confront those fears, I decided to learn how to scuba dive, even before I learned how to swim! I would to use visualization to achieve top performance if I hoped to get out alive.

One of the requirements of a scuba dive certification is to descend 10 feet under water, take off your mask and mouthpiece, and then put them back on again. I was afraid I would drown in those few moments underwater and without oxygen.

What if I lost my mask? How would I get back to the surface? After all, I couldn’t even swim. My instructor was with me, and during practice he had helped me several times. On the day of certification, however, I would need to do it all on my own.

My fear of water had not subsided as I hoped it would. I did not feel safe in the water, especially when I was 10 feet under.

The night before the test, I walked myself through the exercise many times. How could I use visualization to achieve top performance in my situation? Here were my steps:

  1. Take a deep breath and let go of my mouthpiece.
  2. Pull off the mask with my left hand and hold it tightly as my right hand came around and pulled it back over my face.
  3. Keep salt water out of my eyes by keeping them tightly closed.
  4. Grab hold of my mouthpiece and bring life-giving oxygen back into my lungs.

I visualized the sequence dozens of times. And when it came time for my scuba dive certification, I performed the underwater portion exactly as I had visualized it. Two days later, I dove 100 feet down a seawall!

I’m a hard-nosed realist who used to look at things like visualization as "woo woo" New Age. Little did I know at the time that I could use visualization to achieve top performance and point to solid science to explain why it worked. Achieving my goal was about more than work and discipline; it was also about physiology.

Whenever we use visualization to achieve top performance, our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. That is the chemical that becomes active when we encounter situations that are linked to rewards from the past. Dopamine enables us to not only see rewards but also to move toward them. So every time we visualize our achievement, our brain stores that information as a success.

Visualization goes beyond my example of scuba diving.

Here are five ways you can use visualization to achieve top performance:

1. Clarify what you want

This is more important than most people think because once we identify the things that are important to us, it’s easier to notice them. Once we have clarity about our goals, we start to look for ways to accomplish them. Opportunities might have been there all the time but we didn’t look for them, so we didn’t see them.

When you visualize your goals, it forces you to get serious about what you want. Otherwise, there is nothing to visualize but a bunch of half-baked dreams about your future. Visualization takes a hazy idea and turns it into a clear goal. It’s more than a quick fix.

How to make it work for you: Clarity requires precision, so it doesn’t do any good to be content with vague ideas of how you want to live your life. Vague goals sound a lot like this:

  • I want to be rich.
  • I want to travel the world.
  • I want to be respected.

This is the pseudo-goal crap that will never lead you to success because it’s not based in reality. To gain clarity, you will need to sit down and think about how you want events or relationships to unfold, exactly where you want to end up, and exactly what you need to do to get there.

2. Get specific

When you use visualization to achieve top performance, you see your own ability to perform in difficult or stressful situations. It can help move you beyond your current circumstances. Visualizing encourages leaders to ask “What if?” or “What else?” These types of questions open doors of possibility and opportunity. It’s an invitation to move past the status quo.

The very act of giving your brain a detailed and specific portrait of your end goal ensures the release of dopamine, the powerful tool to steer you toward success. If dopamine is associated with rewards, leaders can use this knowledge to help their teams find ways to create a more satisfying work environment. Research has determined that dopamine is produced in anticipation of reward, not as the result of the reward.

How to make it work for you: Visualizing the outcome of an event is enough to trigger the production of dopamine. Ask yourself a simple question such as “What do I want this meeting to look like?” and then visualize your performance. Visualize every objection and/or question that is likely to come up in the meeting, and your response to it.

If you want to use visualization to achieve top performance, you will need to visualize the entire process: the beginning, middle and end. Take your mind through a situation and simulate how you plan to start, what you will experience and how you will do it.

3. Remove uncertainty

Uncertainty can rear its ugly head at any time. It may be rooted in lack of confidence, lack of experience or self-limiting beliefs. It is impossible to use visualization to achieve top performance if we move forward with a timid heart and weak voice.

The FBI Academy taught me to respect uncertainty when it popped up in stressful situations. I never ignored it; instead, I found ways to break its crippling cycle of repetition. It was essential for my job as an FBI agent.

It’s also important for your job as a leader, entrepreneur or business owner. Your confidence is a byproduct of your success, not the cause of it. Uncertainty can sabotage your best efforts to move forward unless you nip it in the bud.

How to make it work for you: The more familiar you become with the situations, conversations or events that produce your uncertainty, the calmer you will be able to approach the situation. Grit up and acknowledge your doubts so you can excavate the significance of their timing.

Write down when you experience uncertainty. Explore what triggers it. Trace the roots all the way back to childhood if needed.

4. Experience the right emotions

Emotions are very important if you want to use visualization to achieve top performance. Your brain learns better with emotions. The memories and experiences that are freighted with emotions stick in your mind. Visualization is a mental simulation of your future performance so you need to cast the right emotion into the equation.

The idea behind visualization is to plant false memories into your brain. To be successful, you must remain positive. Your brain will perceive your future performance as more achievable if they are accompanied by a positive emotion.

How to make it work for you: When you use visualization to achieve top performance,  you’re better prepared for it in real life. You will feel prepared because you’re doing something you’ve already rehearsed many times in your mind. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t give negative emotions the space to fester.
  • Feel positive emotions like enthusiasm, pride, happiness, and satisfaction on every step of the way.
  • Let them become ingrained in your psyche.
  • Don’t ignore the obstacles, but don’t give negative emotions the space to fester.
  • Visualize the obstacles you expect to encounter so you’re prepared for them.
  • Imagine what it will feel like when you succeed.

From Viktor Frankl: “There’s one reason why I’m here today. What kept me alive in a situation where others had given up hope and died was the dream that someday I’d be here telling you how I survived the concentration camps. I’ve never been here before. I’ve never seen any of you before. Nor have I ever given this speech before. But in my dreams I’ve stood before you in this room and said these words a thousand times.”

Like Frankl, you can be successful because you've done it a hundred times before, if only in your mind.

5. Visualize massive success, but never fantasize

There is an important caveat about visualization -- never fantasize. Your brain is smart enough to tell the difference between peak performance and fantasy. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that positive fantasies can actually sap energy.

The same study found that shifting into fantasy mode is most effective when we need to decrease our energy because anxiety is getting the better of us.

How to make it work for you: You can dream of becoming a rock star, but make sure you have the talent to make it happen. It’s great to have dreams, but have the self-awareness to know the difference between you at your very best and a fantasy version of what you dream of becoming in life.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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