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Escape your comfort zone to advance your career

Don't be the big fish in the little pond.

4 min read



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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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