I was laying in the sand trying to re-energize myself after being wiped out by waves for two hours during my first surf lesson when I thought about a quote by Robert G. Allen: “Everything you want is just outside the comfort zone.” I smiled; I had spent the better part of the year outside my comfort zone, and it had been one of the best of my life.
After more than 20 years of experience as a Chief Strategy and Communications Officer, a Senior Business Development and General Manager, and an International Business Consultant, I decided to step out of my comfort zone by getting my MBA. I dedicated the last ten months to a challenging and intense Global MBA program in the top business school Edhec in France—often forcing myself to stretch beyond what I thought was possible—and now I was capping it all off by learning how to surf.
It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve gained so much more than a new diploma. Here are a few critical lessons I’ve learned from a year of challenging myself.
1 . Don’t Run Away From Discomfort
No one likes to be uncomfortable. We live as much as we can in our safety net, surrounding ourselves with people who share our way of living, thinking, behaving, and working. Social media encourage this “comfortable” mindset, feeding us with what we want to see and read, and nothing more.
But we’re avoiding what we should, in fact, strive for, because discomfort is a positive thing. It is a sign we are pushing our boundaries, improving, stretching our mind, and becoming more innovative—and to be successful leaders we have to continue doing these things.
The MBA program was a new environment filled with new people and new rules. Everyone during an MBA program will struggle at some point. But what makes top MBA students is not only their GPA, but their ability to overcome these struggles.
2 . Everyone is a Teacher
When I started work in my twenties, I was quick to judge people. Around that time, I was lucky enough to meet my first mentor, Eric Poette, who told me, “Everyone you cross paths with is a teacher at that moment. Don’t miss the lesson, especially if it is a hard one.”
Stepping out your comfort zone means meeting new people. Some will be fast friends, while others will be more of a work in progress. In any case, push yourself to go beyond your first impression, dig deeper, push your boundaries, forget your assumptions, correct your biases, and don’t give up on anyone, because everyone is a reservoir of knowledge.
With 39 nationalities in my MBA class, I was able to meet so many new people and see so many different ways of thinking. Getting together and sharing ideas was nourishing, even when it was challenging. While talking to people from other areas of the world gave me remarkable insights, it was sometimes frustrating to try and connect with people so different from me. Learning to adjust my perception and find some patience to make these conversations effective was one of the most important lessons I learned during my MBA.
3 . Let Yourself Be Like Clay
When you are in stretch mode, you must be like clay (even if it feels easier to be like a rock). Being a rock has a lot of advantages: you are very strong, difficult to change, very secure. But when a rock touches another rock, nothing happens—they keep the same form.
But imagine if you are blue clay. When you touch a bit of red clay, you will take a little of his red, and he or she will take a little of your blue. Over time, you will collect hundreds of colors—hundreds of new ideas and ways of thinking—and you will always be ready to be pressed, squished, rolled, squeezed, and shaped to become the best human being and business professional you can.
I remember exactly when I decided to keep a little packet of clay in my bag. At that time, I was struggling with some members of my MBA team. My first reaction was to blame them, but I realized this mindset would not help us to be more productive or happier. I knew I was making excuses and not taking responsibility for my own growth, for my own stretching. I bought a bunch of clay, talked to my teammates, and offered each one a bit of the clay to remind us how we help inform and shape each other.
4 . Work Together
The importance of bringing people together was reinforced during my MBA. Maybe we’re each amazing at our own separate things, but when we come together we can create something beyond our imagination. It’s really where the magic happens.
So, while I’m glad I enhanced my global vision of the business world and brushed up on the latest ideas in business thinking during my MBA training, I’m even happier that I was able to improve my people-focused soft skills: my courage to bring people together and make ideas happen, my confidence in my teammates and my teachers, and my consideration for the work of others. I know these skills more than anything will help me continue to push boundaries in myself and in the business world.
After a year of living outside of my comfort zone, I am a proud EDHEC MBA graduate. I have perfected my right brain left brain balance, I wrote a thesis about criminal risks to help executives protect the value and growth of their company, and I gained many connections all over the world.
Even though the MBA is done, I want to stay in this “stretch mode” as much as I can. It is the only way to keep my eyes wide open all the time, to understand what’s happening around me, and to be as innovative as possible.
As for the surfing? Well, it’s a work in progress. I can catch waves for a couple of seconds so far, and I’m happy with that for now. Let’s keep moving and stretching.