Challenge Yourself

I spent the past weekend cabin camping with a boy scout troop.  The point of the trip was to take the boys on a challenge course.  They spent all day Saturday facing various physical obstacles, learning to work as a team, thinking creatively, and solving challenging problems.  For example, in one challenge they had to get all 7 members of their team over a 12 foot high wall, using only each other.  In another, they all had to walk across a 20’ log that was suspended several feet off the ground.

In the afternoon, they got into safety harnesses, climbed up a 8” wide ladder, and then walked across logs and wires 30 feet above the ground, with only a “ground buddy” yelling encouragement.  I am proud to say that every scout made it all the way across, with no one falling off or needing rescue.  While some did have more extreme coaching from the ground, every one made it all the way to the end, where they angel-repelled back down to the ground.

Did I mention this entire day was spent outdoors, with a temperature that never got above 30 degrees Fahrenheit?  And we had a light dusting of snow in the afternoon?

It was amazing to see teenage boys so nervous and cautious as they walked the high wires, then collapsing with relief as they reached the ground at last. They accomplished something they were not sure they could do, and you could see them swell with pride when they looked back up and realized what they had done.

That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag in the cabin, I thought about how well the smaller challenges on the ground had prepared the scouts for the larger ones on the high ropes.  By taking on the smaller challenges and successfully completing them, they built both their skill level and their confidence, so they were ready for the big challenge when it arrived. I had plenty of time to think, as the cold breeze made it hard to sleep. 

In the morning, I found out the cabin window near my cot had been cracked open, and that was the source of the cold breeze.  The irony was striking – here the scouts had risen above all sorts of physical challenges, but I couldn’t even be bothered to get out of my warm sleeping bag to find and eliminate the source of my own discomfort. 

Sometimes we are like that in our careers.  We get stuck in a rut, doing the same thing because that’s what we’ve always done, and it’s safe.  We may not like it, but can’t be bothered to step out of our comfort zone and learn a new skill, explore a different field, or try expanding our horizons – even when we know doing it would improve our situation in the long run. 

So, where are the “cold breezes” in your career?  What can you do to stop them?  Is there a class you can take, a new project you can ask to work on, or a meeting that you can attend to challenge yourself to learn something new – and perhaps make your own situation more comfortable in the long run. 

This article was written by scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants, and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).

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