To some degree, we all get a little too comfortable with what we do every day. Since the majority of our days are routine-driven, it becomes easy to coast through life. This isn’t to say that we aren’t making progress or accomplishing. If you do something everyday, you certainly will improve at what you do. However, there’s no better way to expedite the process than to put yourself in some unfamiliar territory. Give yourself a challenge.

Jumping Off the Deep End of the Dock

When I started my current day job in web development about 5 years ago, I thought I was an amazing developer. I knew how to talk to clients, I had a background in design, I was proficient in HTML and CSS, and I even know how to build and customize WordPress sites from the ground up.

I walked in my first day with all of the confidence in the world. Much to my surprise, I was surrounded by a team of developers who knew all of the same things I did — and so much more. I immediately went from the top of the ladder, where I was at the previous job, to the bottom of the ladder at my new job.

Initially, this bruised my ego, but it made me realize that I had just began to scratch the surface of web development and that there was so much more to learn.

My new job had zero training. I was thrown into the deep end and forced to figure out what was going on. I asked a lot of questions, I consulted Google every 5 minutes, and I read books and blogs in my free time about the new technologies I was surrounded by.

It was a tough time in my career, but it was also probably one of the most beneficial to date. After about a year, I had a good bearing on all of the projects I touched. I was able to work on large scale projects on a variety of different frameworks and platforms. I had exposure to new languages and had even started to write some very complex programming logic. I was astounded by my own growth.

Finding New Docks to Jump Off

Once I had found a homeostasis, my learning slowed greatly. It’s not that I didn’t learn new things. There was definitely an ebb and flow. But there was no “big bang” that could match the exponential growth that happened when I first started the job at my current company… until a couple months ago.

A colleague approached me with a programming challenge. The challenge was written by Facebook for prospective hires to complete before they even had the opportunity to interview. I wouldn’t ever want to be a programmer at Facebook, but I thought to myself “yeah, I’d be good enough to be one if I actually wanted to”.

The challenge looked easy. I got started on a coast-to-coast plane ride on my way back from a conference. I spent 4 hours digging into this challenge. And right around the time the plane landed, I had a hit a wall.

I revisited the challenge the next day for a couple hours and made some more progress. And then the next day, I found that the approach I was taking that whole time wouldn’t work. Ugh! I had already sunk a solid 10 hours into this!

I became obsessed with this problem for about a week. I even lost sleep over it. At one point, I got up at 4:00AM to try an approach that popped into my mind while I was lying awake.

Finally, after a lot of frustration, studying, and trial and error, I completed challenge. It was an incredibly rewarding moment.

Never Get Too Comfortable

A lot of people might have given up after the first or second attempt, but I refused to believe that I wasn’t capable of solving the challenge. And boy, did I learn a lot about programming patterns in the process. But I also learned something else — something far more important.

I realized that with the majority of the projects I work on at my job, I know exactly how I’m going to approach something. Therefore, I’m not learning much in those situations. I’m only truly learning in situations of unfamiliarty.

One can improve at something much faster when they are put in (or when they put themselves in) a position of unfamiliarity than when they are in in a position of comfort. We don’t necessarily get better at our jobs by showing up everyday. We get better at our jobs when we face challenges. Sometimes these challenges will come about naturally, and other times, we might need to create one for ourselves.

Always Have a Challenge

I am now making a deliberate effort to always have a challenge, both in my career, and my personal pursuits. I want to sharpen and improve my skills as much as I can. Anyone who isn’t lazy should feel the same way.

Focus on the areas in which you want to improve. Look at your day-to-day accomplishments and see if you can identify areas of weakness to focus on. Challenge yourself by pushing these skills to a whole new level. Then repeat the process. You’ll have a lot more to show for it than the majority of the people around you.