Are Comfort Zone Behaviors Dragging Your Career Down?
Written by Russell Johnson
In evolutionary terms, the freedom to indulge ourselves is a recent development. For most of our forebears, the critical item on the Task List each day was to avoid being eaten. So they ate whatever they could, and took whatever rest they could, whenever it was safe to do so.
All to keep themselves ready for fight or flight.
We are now largely free of the risk of becoming a meal for a stronger or faster creature. However in overcoming that risk, we have developed vulnerabilities that can harm us today.
Our natural propensity for self-indulgence, when there’s an opportunity for it, is the equivalent of a security hole in a computer. It leaves us susceptible to exploitation. There are many who will take advantage of this if we fail to protect ourselves.
Protection begins with vigilance against experiences that, while pleasant in the short term, will weaken us in the long run.
Start by Questioning Comfort Zone Activities
Our easy access today to opportunities for self-indulgence is a mixed blessing. Most of us manage to steer clear of the most obviously harmful practices. However, there are other practices that are not so obvious – and they often come with effects similar to those of addiction.
An Example – A Tactical Career Focus
A tactical career focus is undemanding; it doesn’t require the hard work of developing clarity and strategy. At its extreme, it merely involves an occasional job change – a relatively simple process for most of us, even if not a favorite activity.
Such a search might begin by outlining our skills in a CV or resume, along with evidence of our achievements. We might also update our LinkedIn profile with the aim of being noticed by recruiters. Then, we search for advertised roles that require skills we possess, and that are well paid. And then, we simply fire off an application whenever we see a job that looks interesting, and for which we believe we’re qualified.
The process might well achieve its intended aim, which is the next job. However, the problem is that the aim is wrong. It’s based on tactics, rather than beginning with clarity and strategy.
And where the aim is wrong, the outcome will be, too. Even though it may bring occasional highs, the habit of a tactical focus leads inexorably to a career that’s progressively less fulfilling. Sadly, the problem will worsen as the years and decades pass.
For a successful career, we need to begin with the end in mind. This means clarifying what our overall aim in working is, and then remaining true to that. It obviously has much to do with the kind of life we want to live. For our best outcome, this must include clarity regarding the sort of contribution we want to make to society and to a sustainable future, as well as to a stimulating and fulfilling working life.
Even though a tactical focus is easy, it’s ultimately harmful. We need to start by ensuring our objectives, our strategy and our tactics are aligned.
An Insidious Aspect of a Tactical Focus: the Reactive Approach
A reactive focus can seem quite normal, but it’s always tactical and will therefore lead to problems over time. Examples include:
- The ‘seller’ mindset; accepting the positioning of an applicant rather than a buyer,
- Aiming to bolster marketability by adding academic credentials. For most careers, their relevance is confined largely to our early twenties. Beyond that point, employers are generally far more interested in career achievements than in academic credentials.
- Reliance on the advertised job market, or on recruiters, for a career move,
- Taking a job without a clear set of objectives, and a next step, in mind.
- And potentially worse, remaining too long in a single role or organization.
The reactive approach sometimes results in rapid promotion. However, it will lead to diminished motivation and marketability over time. It’s never a good approach to career development.
Why a Marketing Approach is Vital
It’s not difficult to simply fire off an application when we see a job that looks interesting, and for which we believe we’re qualified. But when a job is advertised, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that’s how the successful candidate will be found. Or even that the position will be filled at all.
Often, ads are placed to assess the state of the market, and the likely cost if someone were to be hired – or to have access to candidates if circumstances arise that require a prompt decision.
Or, the ad may be placed to position the company as an equal opportunity employer. The person who will be appointed to the role may already have been selected. However, this can’t be divulged if the employer is aiming to deflect the disappointment and anger of unsuccessful candidates. Particularly internal candidates, who may believe their own superior claim to the role has been ignored.
Or, the employer may actually have decided they need to interview a wide range of candidates. Advertising the job is a natural way to attract such a range. But we need to be aware of how the job is most likely to be filled, rather than focusing on how candidates might be attracted.
The job market is, naturally enough, established by employers with their own benefit in mind. In general, executives with hiring responsibilities are reluctant to employ a stranger. There are simply too many unknowns and attendant risks, and it’s too difficult to assess them through an interview process. The saying that people are typically hired for ability and fired for attitude, sums up this perception.
Moreover, the stakes in hiring are high. It’s widely reported that around fifty per cent of new hires fail. This figure is typically derived by assessing the proportion of people who remain in a role long enough to offset the costs incurred in hiring and developing them. This is commonly seen as being around eighteen months.
The Importance of the ‘Hidden Market’
Senior executives’ own performance is dependent on hiring the right people. Therefore, they are naturally more inclined to employ someone they know, like, trust and respect, rather than a stranger. And around the world, the available data shows that the so-called ‘hidden job market’ is responsible for around sixty-five to eighty-five per cent of all new hires.
What is largely obscured by such statistics is the fact that the more desirable the role, the more likely it is that it will be filled through the hidden, or relational, job market. This part of the market becomes even more important as our careers advance.
Some skilled and careful work is needed to access this market effectively. It’s crucial to know where we want to take our career. Also necessary, is the knowledge of how to find it, what we really have to offer, and how to align our search for it. When we have done this work, the ‘crowded market’ illusion begins to dissipate.
It’s always a good move to replace comfortable methods with effective ones.
We Can Change our Own Settings
We all need the awareness and self-discipline to engage only sparingly in self-indulgence and to commit to activities that will increase our time spent working in the ‘flow’ state.
Life inside the comfort zone is addictive. But time spent growing into the ability to handle new challenges is vital. When we ‘bite off more than we can chew’ and then rise to the challenge, it can even be exhilarating.
If you are reading this, you’re benefiting from this principle, right now. When you took on the challenges of learning to walk, and to speak, and to read, they all took effort and the willingness to fail a lot. But those efforts, and the repeated failures that paved the way to success, continue to bring their rewards, year after year.
All of us who have reached executive or professional levels have deep experience of the benefits of achievement. But we may sometimes need to remind ourselves that these benefits don’t flow only in the form of the freedom to indulge our penchant for the comfort zone. And that by taming our desire for it, we not only increase our fulfilment but also become better and more successful human beings.
Through activities that we find inherently satisfying, even if challenging, we can make our work, our play. Using cues, routines, and rewards, we can set ourselves up for disciplined, successful careers, balancing the fulfilment of challenging activities with an appropriate proportion of time spent in the comfort zone.
This is recreation in its real sense; deliberately re-creating ourselves.