Given a choice we all will continue to stick to what we are comfortable doing
A key point to remember is not different jobs, but jobs that develop important competencies
Look at your career choices as building an investment portfolio – one that will give you the best returns. Think long-term and do not look for short-term results when building your portfolio - that is the only way to create long-term wealth and health.
It was a really tiring day. I had a feeling that one more meeting, one more email, and I would, bite the next head that pops into my office. I realized I needed a break, and decided to walk into a cheery colleague’s office. As I walked in, I saw one of his managers walk past. I murmured a polite hello, how are you? Her reply broke me off my cannibalistic reverie! She said “good but a little uncomfortable!” Startled out of my head biting urge I paused to probe further. What ensued was a delightful conversation with this uncomfortable girl (no she is not the red queen – she comes later).
Apparently, she had been retained last year when she had quit. She was in a support function earlier and in a line project management role now. Despite being a year, she was still coming into grips with her new role. “Was good just a polite starter then?” I asked. “No” she reassured me. She admitted she would not have said ‘good’ a few months ago. Her joy at being retained was short-lived as she realized the demands of the new profile. There were times she wished she had not stayed and was even tempted to look for another job. But a year on and she sees things differently, “I am still uncomfortable but I am ok because I am building a strong portfolio and a great resume”. “Without this uncomfortableness I would not have known things about myself that I do today.”
Wow! That reminded me of a recent time when I was really uncomfortable. My manager insisted that I manage a part of the negotiation on a business deal. I really did not want to do it; I was worried as I had never done this before! I snapped at the messenger who brought this message, questioned my boss’ competence in asking me to do this but I finally did it out of no choice. I was uncomfortable… I was nervous, and I must admit a tad scared! If I had a choice I would have ducked out of it.
Today, I am ready to do more of it. As I write this I am exorcising two of my fears or should I say two of my weak muscles – overseas travel and working in client facing roles. I realized that this young girl had suddenly made me more comfortable with my “uncomfortableness”!
Are we, the young colleague and me, alone in our discomfort? No! Given a choice we all will continue to stick to what we are comfortable doing. When pushed, we react by quitting, snapping, yelling, and finding the first option to get back to our comfort zones.
If this is our predisposition, why get out of our comfort zones? Let me answer this by explaining the ‘Red Queen’ concept.
The ‘Red Queen’ concept is famously derived from the famous lines of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Let me explain this with an example.
Trees in a forest are normally competing for access to sunlight. If one tree grows a little bit taller than its neighbors it can capture part of their sunlight. This forces the other trees in turn to grow taller, in order not to be overshadowed. The net effect is that all trees tend to become taller and taller, yet still gather, on an average, just the same amount of sunlight, while spending much more resources in order to sustain their increased height. In sum, in a competitive world, relative progress (‘running’) is necessary just for maintenance (‘staying put’). (Ref: Van Valen L. (1973): "A New Evolutionary Law", Evolutionary Theory 1, p. 1-30.)
This is what happens when we play to our strengths. We grow to be tall, slender trees whose only competence is the ability to grow faster to grab that extra sunlight. The day sunlight is no longer required, or an artificial source of growth is found, we will no longer grow and finally wilt and die. Drawing parallels with professional life, this only means that if you continue to play to your strengths, you will ultimately become a low performer, on the next redundancy list, and find it difficult to secure another job.
I know many of you are smirking looking at the opportunities that beckon us in India. Most of us have to just post a resume and we will get a job with at least a 10% higher salary. But, even if the market remains the same in the next hundred years, how long will you remain young, mobile and willing to go over the uncertainty that comes with moving from one job to another. I meet a lot of professionals in their 40s, stuck in dead end jobs, wanting to move but not getting opportunities, or getting opportunities that they believe do not value their seniority and success. These are the folks that I referred to in my earlier column Interviewlogue: No Method In The Madness (http://peoplematters.in/articles/focus-areas-13/an-interviewlogue-no-method-in-the-madness). They are the Character sketch 1 - Candidates who boast of 15 years of experience are one that most would term as 1 year of experience, repeated 15 times over! Or Character Sketch 2 - Candidate with same, but bigger jobs!
I am not advocating jack of all trades and master of none. What I am recommending is a diverse set of competencies. A key point to remember is not different jobs, but jobs that develop important competencies. For example a software engineer who has done testing, production support and development has better chances of succeeding as a project manager than a software engineer who has done only development.
We may not have the luxury of doing a full-fledged role, but what about volunteering to be part of the next M&A deal, a client presentation or a cross-functional team. Once you decide you are ok with being uncomfortable, you will find opportunities.
Look at your career choices as building an investment portfolio – one that will give you the best returns. Diverse, yet not too diverse that you do not know what you are, focused yet not too focused so that you are exposed to too much risk of going outdated or commoditized! Think long-term and do not look for short-term results when building your portfolio - that is the only way to create long-term wealth and health.
Good luck for many safe landings and take-offs in our careers as we set out to build a portfolio that builds a great resume that will last a lifetime.
Elango R, is the Chief Human Resources Officer at MphasiS. He blogs on www.agastyaelango.wordpress.com and follow him on twitter@agastyasays