Over the course of our careers we have plenty of shining moments. I’m sure if you look back, you’ll find a few that make you smile. For me, my biggest shining moment was when I held our first hard copy of Loyalties in my hands. This book was the culmination of every shred of talent, experience and hard work Wendi and I had accumulated over the years.
There are smaller moments, too. Like learning a new program, mastering a difficult section of code or working through a particularly rough project.
When the work is easy, the results are satisfying, but when the job is hard, the sense of accomplishment is even greater.
For our theme this week I had to sit down and think about what it really was the at made those shining moments so spectacular. What separated them from the daily accomplishments?
What I came up with surprised me. I never would have considered it before. The one thing that gave me the most satisfaction was when I had to step outside my comfort zone.
You and Your Zone
Everyone has a comfort zone. This is the place where you feel your most confident. You know what you’re doing and it’s easy to shine. You’re the expert. You’re in charge. You fly through the task almost on auto-pilot. You know what you’re doing is going to come out great no matter what you do because you’ve been over that ground dozens of times before.
But there’s a danger in the comfort zone. Stay there too long and it’s easy to grow complacent, careless. It’s like falling into the land of Fairy. Everything in there is soooo good you never want to leave. Meanwhile, the outside world is moving on without you.
Running the risk of stagnation is not good for us creative types. For a writer, designer or any creative individual, stagnation leads to predictability. Predictability leads to mediocrity and before you know it, all of your work is starting to look the same.
It’s one thing to have a recognizable style, but quite another to have each piece look like a slightly different version of the last.
Outside the Box
On our writing blog, Behind the words, we talk about the Illusion of Creative Freedom. There I say before we begin thinking outside the box, we first had to have a box.
Sometimes the box we’re given looks awfully scary. Sure, there are elements of it we’re familiar with. Every box has six sides (if you’re thinking in 3D. Four if you’re not). These sides are things like the programs and skills we use every day. The scary part is what we can’t see inside. What’s inside are the aspects of the project we’ve either never done before or ones we’ve had bad experiences with for any number of reasons.
At this point you have two choices: One, you can turn down the project and continue to hide your head in the sand, or two, you can meet the challenge and do battle.
How To Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Stepping outside the comfort zone doesn’t mean you always have to fling yourself over that cliff and pray your bungee cord holds. You can be smart about it. In fact, I’d go as far to say you never have to throw yourself into anything on a wing and a prayer. That’s probably what got you into trouble the first time. It’s easy to bite off way more than you can chew, especially when you’re first starting out. You want all the jobs you can get, you feel like you can’t afford to say no.
When I’m faced with this kind of challenge, my first response (always to Wendi and never to the client) is a knee-jerk reaction that goes something like this:
“No. That can’t be done. I’m not doing it. That’s stupid. Why on earth do they want that?”
Sound familiar? Purely an emotional response that is really saying, “I’m scared to take this on because I don’t want to fail.”
It took me a while to get over, but I’ve since realized that reactions like these have nothing to to with the client and everything to do with my own emotions. Next time you find yourself reacting in a similar manner, take a closer look at what’s going on and see if you come up with the same conclusion.
When this happens, you’ve reached your upper limit of tolerance. Your survival instincts are kicking in and you want to run right back to your comfort zone. It’s safer there.
And really, retreating is a very good idea, but not if you’re going to hide. Now that I know what triggers to look for I have a very different way to cope with stepping outside the comfort zone. Here’s a few things for you to consider for yourself.
Step back. Some requests will hit a real sore spot with you. Learn to recognize your triggers. Once you learn those and see what’s happening, take some time out. Distance is a good thing when you need to think. You don’t have to answer that email right away, or say yes to a client’s request on the spot. You are allowed to take some time to think about it. Calm down and come back to it when you can be more objective.
Break It Down. Pick the request apart. See how much of it you know you can handle and what you clearly know you can’t. Then proceed to the next step…
Check Your Resources. Sometimes what you don’t know is as easy as finding the answer online. Your solution could be very easy and you may not realize it. Make use of your resources. Many of my professional peers are more than happy to answer a tech question or two. If they have the time, they may even ask to take a closer look at the project themselves.
This flow of information goes both ways and it’s one of these things where you may be able to return the favor at a later date.
And if you were right and the project is too complicated? At least you can confidently tell your client this is the case and make other arrangements to either outsource the work (usually to the peer who helped you out with the free info) or decide on another alternative.
Stay Up To Date. Keep abreast of the changes and advancements in your field of expertise. Never stop learning, take some training classes. Working on the web brings blinding fast changes. What was new technology yesterday is obsolete today. Subscribe to as many blogs and sites in your field as you can, and a few outside your field as well. Particularly topics that your target audience would be interested in. Also keep an eye on your competition. What are they doing to keep up?
Create A Checklist. Keep a running list of problems you’ve run into and how you got over them. I keep a whole folder on design documentation that has all kinds of coding stuff in it. I also have a list of questions to ask clients when it comes to their hosting and other behind the scenes operations. No one wants to be surprised by outdated files or platforms. If a client doesn’t meet all your criteria, you either make it clear there will be an extra charge or you politely refuse to take the job.
Your takeaway lesson? The more you know going in, the less likely you’ll get caught off guard by the unexpected. Nothing is more professional than being as prepared as possible. Every time we step outside our comfort zones we learn something new. The lessons at times may be hard as hell to get through, but they really do make us that much stronger.
We’ll never know it all, but at least we can arm ourselves with the lessons of the past. And each time we do this, stepping out from our comfort zones to shine becomes less of a frightening chore and more of a glorious adventure.