MPW Insiders is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career? is written by Mary Lou Burke Afonso, Chief Operating Officer of Bright Horizon’s North America Center Operations.
The most important lesson I have learned in my career is to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Often times in our jobs we come across tasks or challenges that we are not comfortable with. But leaders who want to grow challenge themselves to rise above this. They don’t just play to strengths they already have, but they find new strengths they weren’t even aware of and build on them. Stepping out of your comfort zone can add energy and excitement to your work, and stimulate new thoughts and creativity. All personal and professional growth is dependent upon pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone.
I learned this lesson early on in my career when I was given an incredible opportunity to live in Paris. I was working for a different company at the time, and they asked me to go to Paris to become their French Controller. While moving to Paris seemed like an amazing opportunity – and of course it was – I found myself holding back on agreeing to go because I was worried about everything I would be leaving behind – my family, my friends, a great job, a new condo. It was all so dependable, so comfortable. I figured that while I might learn a new language and a new culture and meet new friends, couldn’t I also do that at home? Why would I need to leave Boston?
Thankfully, my more adventurous mother reminded me that, while all of my family and friends would always be here, this opportunity would not. And if I didn’t go, I might miss out on something truly special. As she put it – “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
So I listened to her, and I decided to step out of my comfort zone – way out – and live in Paris for two years. Looking back, I can see how much I gained, more than just language and culture and new friends. I came back enriched – I had more confidence, more independence, a newfound interest in cultures and a love of traveling. And just as my mother predicted, my family and friends were still here. In fact, for much of my time in Paris, my family and friends were there. I was able to enjoy many visits and amazing adventures with stories that will last a lifetime. And I would have missed it if I hadn’t gotten out of my own way and over my personal fear of taking risks.
The experience of course benefited my career as well. The professional experience I gained working in international finance, where I needed to learn a different currency and set of rules and reporting standards – as well as how to adapt marketing strategies from country to country based on cultural differences – gave me an understanding of the global business landscape that has helped me immensely in working for a company like Bright Horizons that operates worldwide. Diving into unchartered territory has also enabled me to be adaptable to different leadership styles, comfortable with a diverse team, and a better problem-solver who can rely on her instincts – all things that have proved beneficial over the course of my career.
Each and every one of us has been challenged by tasks that feel uncomfortable. My advice is to rise above those challenges – don’t be afraid of them – and tackle them head on. Because the greatest pride you’ll ever know is being honest about what’s holding you back, and then conquering it.