How big is your potato?

What is it like to live completely outside your comfort zone all day, every day? How does it transform you?

I never thought of myself as someone who knows the answer to this question because I do not relate to those daring and courageous people who scale mountains and gaze over cliffs in the images that advertisers and self-help gurus use so often to capture this concept.

 

 

After a particularly challenging day trying to sound professional in a foreign language (If you must know, I narrowly missed sending a message to a client describing a job candidate’s success in fartingrather than seeing a product through to production), it occurred to me that, not only do I know the answer to this question, I have a much more accurate image of what the experience really feels like.

Venturing outside of your comfort zone feels like speaking and appearing to others as though you always have a large undercooked potato in your mouth.

Nothing comes out quite right, it is a huge and exhausting effort, and no matter how hard you chew, you never feel like the potato gets any smaller or provides any nourishment. On most days, it feels like you have a potato in your mouth and mashed potatoes in place of your brain.

It is difficult to maintain one’s dignity with such a visible and audible handicap, yet you have no choice but to do it anyway. On top of that, you will be measured by the same standards as those who do not have potatoes in their mouths, because the potato may or may not be as visible to others as it feels.

For me and many others working full time in a foreign language, this metaphor is very literal. We struggle to get grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation right while trying think about content of what we want to say and how to convey the intended nuances and subtleties.

At the end of every day, I recall all the mistakes I have made as I remember the right words or review pronunciation hours later, and often feel like I am failing.

When working in my native language, I am used to aiming for perfection, producing fast results, and feeling proud of my work.

Nothing is a better cure for perfectionism having no choice but to communicate verbally in writing in a new language without time for do-overs and corrections.

Working in Swedish, I am constantly forced to accept what to me is far below what I think of as “good-enough” or adequate. I will probably never feel like I have reached the summit.

 

In fact, few out-of-comfort-zone efforts produce a perfect or prize-winning result or even truly measurable success. Those few moments that resemble the grandiose, glamorous, and triumphant climber gazing at the sunset from the top of a mountain are fleeting. Living outside of your comfort zone means has little to do with triumph.

It is mostly about feeling awkward, inadequate, and full of self-doubt. In other words, uncomfortable.

 

During the past month, however, I have interviewed four engineers from Syria in both English and Swedish and found myself describing them as “amazing” and “inspiring”, and thinking of them as courageous and triumphant. Not only did they escape war and spend 1-2 years in limbo waiting for asylum and work permits while being moved from one far-flung town in Sweden to another, they learned two new languages without the advantages that an English-speaker has learning Swedish, with all its shared vocabulary and a similar grammatical structure.

Like me, I am sure they have spent most of their time outside their comfort zones feeling awkward, uncomfortable, and discouraged, especially with the added challenges they face finding jobs here with the added disadvantage of having Arabic names. Their potato situation much larger and more cumbersome than mine.

They may not be summiting mountains, running marathons, or jumping out of airplanes, but they are more courageous and inspiring to me than the privileged people who are able to afford to train for such feats.

We need to reimagine the pictures of achievement and success to include the uncomfortable part and the gradual, imperceptible results. The triumph is not reaching a summit, it is getting up every day and feeling uncomfortable and doing it all anyway without the sunset at the top of the summit or the end of the finish line.

The fact is, everyone has a potato of one sort or another in his or her mouth. Difficulty speaking a new language is the sort of potato that will (hopefully) become smaller and more manageable with time, but some people inherit a potato situation (like appearance or physical disability) that cannot be changed.

We should remember that and be kind to ourselves and others instead of judging too harshly, because as a Scottish reverend wrote in the 19th-century, “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” We can go beyond that, however, and recognize all the strengths that fighting against the potatoes life hands us to chew are assets.

More importantly, people in the powerful position to measure, define, and reward achievement should recognize the strength required to perform with a potato in your mouth and brain every day. It is easy for recruiters hiring managers to see the weaknesses in language skills or gaps in foreign CVs associated with migrating from war, learning languages, waiting 1-2 years for work permits, and/or searching for jobs. But when we see a weakness, we must also remember that behind them lie many strengths and skills that have enabled a person to get to where they are at any given point in time. It may not be a summit right now, but they have the drive and perseverance to make it despite the potato.

My potato has made me realize that imperfect can be good enough and to rely on other skills and strengths I did not see before as valuable. Without the advantage of my usual way with words, other qualities have mattered more for my ability to do my job. For some reason, my boss recognized those strengths behind the obvious potato long before I did. By forcing me to work far outside of my comfort zone, my role at PS Partner has helped me see and nurture qualities I did not fully utilize in my previous profession.

 

I want to conclude this stream-of-thought reflection with two main insights:

  1. Embrace the unrelenting discomfortof having a potato in your mouth, and do whatever it is you need or want to do anyway without waiting for some magical moment of confidence to arrive. Resist the temptation to hide your potato or spit it out. There is a good chance you will get used to it, or in the case of a new skill or language, that it will get smaller. Eat it proudly, and let your other superpowers shine. Remember that you arecourageous and brave, even if you do not get to take a selfie at the top of a summit.

The next time you see a slick image of people scaling mountains or surfing massive waves and feel that twinge of inadequacy that you are not ”one of those people” achieving greatness, remember that greatness often looks more like someone doing something while holding a potato in their mouth. Greatness is rarely so simple and obvious. Sometimes, greatness means chewing without being able to swallow, just getting by and not sinking, and getting up every day to do it again.

  1. When you see anyone working with a potato, recognize what they have already achieved and what their personal strength (and many corresponding skills or superpowers) they can bring to your organization, instead of focusing on what appears to be lacking on the surface.

Including people with various kinds of potatoes that are different from yours in your life or organization are living outside of their comfort zones, and the challenge of adapting to that diversity will help you live outside of YOUR comfort zone and climb your Everest even if you do not already have your own potato situation (but you probably do even if you do not realize it). Growth is impossible without long and difficult periods of feeling uncomfortable. The sooner you get used to it and do the hard work anyway, the better.

 

 Megan Reif Dyfvermark, Recruiting Consultant – PS Partner 2018