Getting Uncomfortable a.k.a. the Secret to Achieving Greatness

Someone recently said something that was surprisingly reassuring to me: life is all about continual growth. The most dangerous thing you can do to yourself is to let your growth stagnate–to get complacent.

And off of that seemingly small realization, I gleaned a lot of other life lessons. In this case, the speaker was the former CEO of Bloomingdale’s, Michael Gould, who came to speak to a business class that I’m in about the fashion industry, so he was applying this advice to the career world. “Good is the enemy of greatness,” he said. He was suggesting that once you get too comfortable in a situation, you’ve stopped growing. Yes, absolutely celebrate your successes; and after you’ve clinked glasses, keep an eye out for opportunities to grow and get uncomfortable.

I’m graduating college soon, which–as I’m sure most of you can remember or relate to–is accompanied by a really weird mix of feelings. I’ll admit my biggest fear is the thought of a corporate 9-to-5 job sitting in a cubicle amidst thousands of other cogs in the machine. I have actually had panic attacks regarding this scenario. I am someone who loves to learn new things, loves to be out in the world experiencing it, and goes stir crazy very quickly when cooped up inside for too long. So in searching for companies to apply to I’ve been struggling as I imagine the worst. But Mr. Gould was also right in that every job we do, even the ones we may hate, is a valuable learning experience. I have certainly done internships at some hugely influential companies and been miserable, but I learned so much about the fashion world and myself in that misery. It all boils down to your attitude about what you are doing, and attitude is 10% what’s given to you and 90% how you deal with it.

I want to continue to grow and push myself to always do better. Maybe that’s what seems so frightening about the idea of graduating and starting a real full-time job is this concept in my mind that “that’s it”… that’s the last of what I’ve been working towards and there’s nowhere but downhill from there. As you go through grade school and high school, you are working towards college; then as you go through college you are working towards a degree, but once you leave college the goals are no longer clearly defined and delineated for you. GAH! Suddenly you have to set your own goals and make your own plan to achieve those goals. And no one is holding you accountable for them, for the most part, except yourself.

And no one is holding you accountable for [those goals] except yourself.

But how do you set those personal goals for yourself? I’m guessing by taking it day by day, idea by idea! “Life is an endless process of self-discovery,” Mr. Gould quoted John Gardner, the acclaimed writer.

So if I start to feel like I’ve got it figured out, the first thing I must tell myself is…

“No, you don’t have it all figured out Emily, and you probably never will. Secondly, as an exercise, have a little empathy and put yourself in other people’s shoes. Because even if you think you’ve figured yourself out as you start to see the world the way that other people see it you will realize there is no one way to figure it out.”

Maybe it’s my anxiety speaking but I am so constantly aware of how little I know. One of my favorite insights is from the great Bill Nye: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you do not.” Hence all of the quotes I’m using in writing this article – sometimes other people have just said it better already!

So be humble in all that you do, accept that you do not always know best and will often need help, and try to realize that it is not a failure on your own ability, but rather it’s a success to be able to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Every experience – each failure, each success, each new challenge – is a chance to make yourself better. It may not be as obvious as the answers in a textbook, but there is always an opportunity to learn something pretty cool and so something pretty cool, too.