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Tamara Lundgren, Bridgette Heller, Pontish Yeramyan, Moderator: Jennifer Reingold Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women

Want to perform your best? It might be time to quit your job.

Oct 06, 2014

It’s a timeless question for the business elite: How does a person reach optimal performance? For those struggling to transcend mediocrity at work, what’s the trick to snap out of it? Is there an exercise regimen that unlocks peak cognition? Maybe a book of business wisdom that can help? How much meditation does it take?

Some execs think there’s a simpler answer: Find a different gig.

Bridgette Heller, a Merck EVP and president of the company’s consumer care segment, was an executive at Johnson & Johnson when she got the unshakeable sense that the job just wasn’t clicking. In moments of honesty and clarity, she says, “I always found myself coming up against the same sort of nightmare scenario: a voice that said, ‘You need to make a change.’”

Heller spoke on Monday at the Finding Your Genius panel at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, California. She joined a group of other high-wattage female executives speaking about how to tap into your inner genius.

There were plenty of reasons for Heller to stay at Johnson & Johnson. “I’ve got to feed my family, and I’m making a lot of money,” she recalls thinking. “You’ve got all these excuses about why you don’t want to go there. But at the end of the day you come to realize that unless I get there, I can’t be fully expressed or fully happy.”

So she left, and is now a senior executive at Merck. Heller says the switch made all the difference. In the right job, she found, “driving the growth, and really hitting it as a team, it felt like soaring.” Not having that, she says, It felt horrible.”

A key component of reaching peak performance is being in the right environment, but getting there can be hard and risky work.

Tamara Lundgren, now CEO of $2.6 billion Schnitzer Steel Industries and chairman of the board at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says she knew it was time to move on when she found herself getting bored. A prolific career hopper, she loved lawyering and banking until she didn’t. “Each time I changed careers it’s been that type of situation,” she says. “I’d been itching for something new.”

When the call came from other industries, she answered. “People got me on a slow day,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Why not!’”

There are a few characteristics that often accompany a fertile environments for success: Big goals, a healthy amount of pressure, and working for a cause bigger than oneself. “A lot of research shows that when people [find their] genius, it’s not about them,” says Pontish Yeramyan, founder and CEO of consulting firm Gap International. “It’s not about them making it, it’s not about their success. It’s about a bigger thing.”

It’s helpful to aim high, Yeramyan says. There’s a big difference between aiming to make a difference, and just trying to survive the day. Research shows that often people who are focusing on just not failing, are less likely to actually succeed. “Getting through something is a very different state of thinking than making your mark,” she says.

In thinking about whether to make a career leap, it can be helpful to keep in mind that often, failing is survivable. “I want to change the world,” says Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and Microsoft board member. “So I fail all the time.”

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