listen. perspective

Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable 

Tayana Johnson | State Street Corporation

March 27,2018

I’ve always been a competitive person and a bit of a risk taker.

That’s partially why I decided to join the first cohort of State Street’s Leadership Development Program (LDP), a global rotational program designed to identify and develop future leaders within the organization. During the two-year program, I moved into a new function on a new team in a different division every eight months. I went from human resources, to research and trading, and then our asset management business, before finally ending up in my current role in Exchange Traded Fund servicing. Each time I transitioned to a new role, I was always a little out of my depth. There was a whole new business to understand. A new team and culture to fit into. New procedures and policies to learn. And yes, day one (and two, and 22) was always a little overwhelming.

A fellow LDP member, Charlotte Richards, felt the same way. “My first rotation was overwhelming. I felt really uncomfortable, and a little bit useless. I had the same feeling in my second and third rotations, but I started to recognize that it wasn’t me that was the problem. It was just the process I had to get through. With each new rotation, the feeling didn’t last as long. I got comfortable being uncomfortable.”

That’s the point. That’s the theory behind optimal anxiety. And it’s been around for a while.

In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson found an empirical relationship between arousal (stress) and performance. The two scientists essentially trained mice to navigate mazes by shocking them with low level of electricity when they made a mistake. They found that slight discomfort led the mice to perform better and learn faster.

That’s what optimal anxiety is all about – a little stress is actually a good thing.

A little stress can actually be a good thing.

To be fair, too much stress can be a major health risk. Even in the mice experiment, if pushed too hard they refused to complete the maze. We should find healthy ways manage stress if we want to live happier, more productive and longer lives. But striving to be totally stress-free can actually can keep us from growing and developing at work.

As New York Times reporter, Alina Tugend wrote1,

“The objective is to reach that optimal level so that our skills increase and we become comfortable with that new level of anxiety — then we’re in an expanded comfort zone. And ideally, we will get more used to those feelings of ‘productive discomfort’ and won’t be so scared to try new things in the future.”

Each LDP rotation is only eight months, so you don’t have the luxury of time to get comfortable. I started waking up a little earlier to spend an extra 15 minutes reading, trying to learn as much as I could before my day started. I went out of my way to ensure I wasn’t treated as an intern, but a valued member of the team with my own set of skills and experiences. I looked for opportunities that I knew I could own. I built relationships with people who knew more than me and were willing to answer my questions. And I asked a lot of questions! It’s impossible to take in everything at once, so I learned to be comfortable not knowing some things (which, after 10 years in the same field, is a really hard thing to be okay with!)

By the six-month mark of each rotation I was usually settling into a groove. Right when I finally felt I was getting my arms around my new role, it was time to move on to the next one and the whole process started over – it was always a learning curve! Since the program moved us around so frequently, we never got the chance to be complacent. We always had to be learning new things, acquiring new skills, building new relationships and developing the enterprise-wide business knowledge that is practically impossible to achieve if you don’t get out of your comfort zone.

For anyone considering a career move, there is often a push-pull argument in their brain. One half says, This is what I know and love and am really good at. Perhaps I could progress more if I just stay. The other part likely says, Just try it and see! You probably won’t regret it and if you do you can fall back on your other skills. While I can’t guarantee it will work for everyone as well as it’s worked for Charlotte and me, I firmly believe that a calculated risk is almost always worth it.

See what wonders a little optimal stress can do for your career.

1. Tugend, A. (2011, February 11). Tiptoeing Out of One’s Comfort Zone (and of Course, Back In). The New York Times. Retrieved from

Topics: Employee Development , Talent Retention

Tayana Johnson | State Street Corporation

Tayana Johnson is a Vice President and ETF Strategist in the SPDR EMEA ETF Model Portfolio team, with a focus on supporting the Model Portfolio business in EMEA and broader SPDR strategic initiatives. Tayana holds a 3rd degree black belt in Taekwondo, enjoys playing guitar and composing music.