I want to talk to you about a graphic I hate. You might have seen it. It looks like this.
The core premise of this graphic? You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to grow. This message has its draws. For someone just starting out in their career, this image could provide a push to try something new – resulting in valuable new skills or experience. Or it could be used to show how worrying about other people’s opinions can hold you back from growth.
But that’s rarely how I’ve seen it used. In our industry, this concept is typically employed to illustrate how important it is to stay out of your comfort zone. The comfort zone – with its associated characteristics of “safety” and “control” – is the last place you want to be. The comfort zone, it implies, is a place where careers languish. The comfort zone is the enemy of progress.
Progress, of course, being the ultimate virtue in Tech. Maintenance, stability, consistency – these are the enemy of progress. This is because, at its core, Tech’s primary goal is to grow. This translates to every part of the business: from customer acquisition, to revenue, and of course, to employee performance.
Tech’s primary goal is to grow. This translates to every part of the business: from customer acquisition, to revenue, and of course, to employee performance.
And most of us in tech are intrinsically driven by constant growth, continual improvement, and career advancement. We’re strivers. The kids who are used to performing (and being rewarded with gold stars and high performance ratings).
When you combine these two forces, a group of motivated overachievers and company systems that encourage constant growth, what do you get? Results? Sure. In the short-term. But you also get burned out employees whose shelf life rarely extends beyond a few years.
This is why we need a case for coasting. A case for doing work that is good, maintainable, and achievable. For deliberately spending time in our comfort zone. It’s time to reclaim consistency and stability as valuable aspects of performance.
But what does it look like to do this in a way where both companies and employees win? How do you get out of the striver mindset and into maintainability?
Use your strengths to make the job easier (and stop focusing so much on your weaknesses)
Important life lesson: things that are easy for you are probably not that easy for everyone else. What comes most naturally to you? Figure that out. Then find ways to use those skills and abilities in your work. Maybe you find it easy to work with others. Or convince stakeholders to take on new work. Maybe you’re an ace at spotting new opportunities before anyone else. Or generating a large variety of ideas quickly. Focus on the impact of these things, not how hard or long they take.
For most of my career, I made the mistake of focusing solely on shoring up my weaknesses – things that were difficult or uninteresting to me – rather than leaning into my strengths. A “challenge” was synonymous with a good opportunity. The harder the work, the more I believed I was pushing myself. I thought I had to be good at everything in my role.
But not everyone needs to be great at every part of their craft. Specialization is not only valuable but often critical at higher levels. And, at the end of the day, it’s easier to compete on a strength that is unique to you – rather than the one that everyone else is good at.
Lean into your downtime
If you work somewhere that has a move-fast culture, you likely go through periods of intense work (whether a large workload, high time-pressure, or particularly challenging assignments). Once these subside – it can often feel like you’re slacking if you don’t immediately jump onto the next big thing. You might even feel a little anxious or guilty for not working hard enough. But taking the time to ride a win is critical for sustained performance.
Lean into the pause. Don’t feel bad for not being at max capacity. You no doubt have plenty of side projects you’ve been dying to finish (or a backlog of logistical work like expense reports that need filing). Use this time to take a breather, catch up on some projects you’re passionate about, and set yourself up for success for the next big push that will inevitably come your way.
Quit chasing that promotion
I was recently chatting with a coworker about some frustrations I had with performance reviews. My bottom line: sometimes it feels like there is an unspoken minimum for months / years in a role before you can “qualify” for a promotion. She listened carefully to my complaints and then asked, simply, “why is it important to you to get a promotion?”
The question caught me off-guard. It felt irrelevant. Aren’t we all working for promotions? The advancements? The raises? The very premise that I could be happy staying in my current role baffled me. But the more I thought about it, the more I was surprised at how good it felt to imagine not caring. What if I didn’t care about promotion or raises? What if instead, I just focused on doing good, achievable, and sustainable work that I enjoyed.
This isn’t to say that you should stop asking for raises or promotions – especially if you have evidence you are doing work that merits one. Instead, ask yourself why you are taking on the projects you choose. Why are you pushing yourself? Is it helping you grow? Is it intrinsically motivating? Does it contribute to your long term career goals? If it’s not benefiting you beyond the chance of promotion, consider whether that’s really the best use of your time.
Know when to push… and when to pull back
Part of any performance-based environment is knowing when to push. Sometimes, being a good teammate means taking on extra, temporary responsibilities. Sometimes a deadline just has to be met – meaning a burst of overtime is needed. And sometimes you need or want to take on work that’s outside your current strengths or comfort zone. So you stretch a bit. Moving beyond your comfort zone can be a great way to grow. But these periods of intense work should have a start and an end.
When crunch drags on and on? That’s when burnout occurs. And you’re really the only one who can save yourself. Most managers (even the good ones) aren’t going to step in to stop you if you push yourself to your limit. It’s important to learn the signs of un-ending pushes so you can identify, diagnose, and solve the underlying causes. Are you dreading coming into work? So tired you can’t take care of things like your health? Dreaming of getting hit by a bus* so you wouldn’t be responsible for your workload? It’s time to take a step back and reevaluate your priorities.
So next time you find yourself drained, stressed, or at the end of your rope, ask yourself this: when was the last time I was in my comfort zone? And how can I get back there?
Then sit back, relax, and coast a little.
*Definitely not an actual example from my personal experience.
Genevieve Conley Gambill is a UX researcher and strategist on a mission to do good with data.