Freezing rain couldn’t dampen my excitement the first time I went to Washington, D.C. Looking out of the window into the night sky during the unsteady landing at Ronald Reagan National Airport, the sight of the glowing Capitol Dome, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial was mesmerizing. This was also my first trip to the east coast. I was in my mid-30s and a manager at a large telecommunications company.
The regional VP of the department had asked if I was interested in participating in scheduled meetings on Capitol Hill in place of her boss who was unable to go. I saw this as an incredible opportunity given that I had been with the company for just 6 months and no one else at my pay grade would attend. I had never left Sandra and the girls for an extended period of time – Marisa was 4 years old and Erica 8 months. This was uncharted territory for me.
When I told Sandra, she asked if I had to go. I hadn’t thought of that question and didn’t know how to answer. We both grew up in working-class neighborhoods where it was common knowledge that extra work meant overtime pay. I learned in my first job out of college that that wasn’t the case in the professional world. Added to the fact that there was no financial benefit to going, I had a young family at home to think about. Did I have to go or did I want to go?
Making the trip would be a calculated risk. If I made a fool of myself, a career with that company probably would have ended sooner than later. If I stayed home, I probably could have had a comfortable career as a manager. If I performed well during the trip, my opportunities with the company could grow. I came to realize that the question was a false dilemma. The answer to both questions was “yes.”
Twenty years later, the thought of deliberating about such a simple opportunity seems quaint. But at the time, it was a big deal. When I decided to make the trip, the conversation with Sandra was somewhat tense. Sandra and I lived in our childhood homes until we were married, our fathers worked at the same jobs for decades, we rarely ventured out of the neighborhood. Family first and being home for dinner were considerations when making social or career decisions.
I remember being a boy listening to my dad’s friends talking about work. Hourly wages, fringe benefits, and keeping a good job forever topped the conversations. The men I looked up to would list the many reasons not to seek advancement: too much pressure and responsibility, salaried employees didn’t get overtime pay for extra work, too risky.
Sound familiar? For many working-class families, taking chances could lead to disaster. Giving up a good job for something that might not work out could put paying the bills in jeopardy. Once you have a good job, the older men would say, playing it safe and not rocking the boat is the smart thing to do. However, I was now in a different world with different rules.
I encourage those who were raised in a similar environment to be confident in your education and experience. Take a leap into the world of leadership and opportunity.
The ability to venture out of comfort zones is a rare quality. Those who are born with this trait are innovators and game changers. They’re not afraid of failure and rejection. They keep taking chances with the sincere belief that the next attempt at success will be triumphant. Thomas Edison personifies this type of person with his oft-quoted observation, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
In my work developing, supporting, and advising Latino leaders, I’ve seen how reluctance to take risks can be a barrier to personal and professional growth. I understand the hesitation. I’ve been there. This is a common thread with both mid-career professionals and high school students. The pros get anxious about losing a job or a title on a business card. Kids fear putting themselves out there to be ridiculed by their classmates.
We all know that getting ahead requires hard work and dedication. But that’s just part of the equation. Stretching oneself intellectually and professionally is needed as well. Those who don’t have the natural tendency to embrace uncomfortable situations must overcome their concerns about the prospect of failure. The best way to do that is by taking on uneasy and unfamiliar roles.
That’s what I did during my first trip to Washington, D.C. two decades ago. Although I had a minor function during the meetings, I held my own. When the VP noticed me chatting with my congressional representative and local elected officials in the hotel lobby after-hours, she recognized me as someone who could provide value to the company. That week turned out to be the first step in a climb up the corporate ladder.
I learned an important lesson on my first journey back east. Taking risks, although riddled with unknowns, results in personal and professional growth. Can taking risks be learned? I think so. I’ll share my thoughts on that topic next time.