Living at the Edge of your Comfort Zone: How to Identify Local Maxima in Your Career

Recently, I've been reflecting mainly on three things:

  1. Understanding my "Circle of Competence" (as Warren Buffet describes it) - what am I good at or naturally curious about? What should I avoid because it's outside my circle?
  2. Knowing the 'edge' of my comfort zone: What should I do/learn/try next to feel uncomfortable growth? How do I prevent complacency?
  3. How do 1 and 2 work together?

This post is about 3. The intersection of 1 and 2 is where the most intrigue lies. At first glance, 1 and 2 might appear contradictory. How can we both "stick to what we're good at" and feel uncomfortable at the same time?

Feel like an imposter

We can achieve 3 by feeling like an imposter again. We need to go out and find the edge of our current competency. The key is finding the absolute edge of what we're good at and pushing past it so that you start to feel imposter syndrome again. If you start to feel like an imposter in your own domain, something that you're already great at and highly experienced in (maybe have done for decades) then you're starting to find that edge.

Research has also shown that imposter syndrome, the feeling of inadequacy despite evidence of competence, is a common experience for high achievers. In fact, studies suggest that up to 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. However, instead of looking at it as a negative feeling, we should embrace imposter syndrome (to paraphrase my colleague Kim). It's a sign that we're pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones and growing. We should welcome it like we do feelings of happiness and satisfaction.

But how can we ensure that we're constantly pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone? One very simple test is that you start to go through the Stages of Competency again.


When you start to really push out of your comfort zone, you'll start feeling incompetent at something you thought you were really good at. That's a strange feeling. Does that mean you're going backwards? Not at all - in the big picture, life is a series of these curves. Like the stock market, when you feel like your competency has gone down, it never really hits previous lows - instead it's a steadily increasing trend line following a sinusoidal-like wave.

It's a bit like the famous S-curves used in business strategy.

Source: Montaka

Complacency sets in when we don't realise we're at the end of an S-curve. That's how we get stuck in a comfort zone. When you're climbing a mountain, you know when you're at the top of a mountain. When it comes to competencies or to your career, it's much harder to know if you've reached local maxima.

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. - Nelson Mandela

So what's the best way to identify if you've reached local maxima?

Go out and seek people who challenge you. When we surround ourselves with people who challenge us, we're exposed to new ideas and perspectives that can broaden our knowledge base and show us gaps or limitations in our competency . Stepping out of our comfort zones and taking on challenges that scare us can also lead to increased confidence and resilience.

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.”

Chances are, if you've become comfortable or haven't realised you've hit a local maxima, it's because the people around you aren't challenging or pushing you.

Stepping out of our comfort zones and embracing the discomfort that comes with challenging ourselves is key to a lifelong growth mentality. Instead of shying away from feeling like an imposter, we should use it as a sign that we're on the right track.

I'll leave you with these questions:

  • Who are you surrounding yourself with right now that inspires you? (perhaps someone you aspire to become more like)
  • Who is mentoring you to help identify local maxima in your competencies or career?
  • Who or what is challenging you and making you want to be 1% better every single day?

If you're struggling to answer those questions, it might be time for some change.

Thanks to Simone Salazar for reading drafts of this and providing feedback.
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