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Are You Comfortable at Work, or Complacent? Assess Your Skill Set

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A man sitting on a couch and looking at his laptop.

Have you checked in with your professional, social-impact self lately or are you simply coasting through your work week on autopilot?

As creatures of habit, we tend to settle into our daily routines without really thinking about them.

It probably starts with how you wake up. There is a set order in which you go about your morning—shower, brush teeth, get dressed, grab the same coffee and bagel at the same place you pass on the same path to your office—every day.

And, it likely continues after you arrive at work. We can get so content with what we do and how we do it that, once we swallow our last bite of bagel, we become lulled into submission.

But what if we neglect to engage our professional performance quality control system? Do we run the risk of losing our edge?

Comfort or complacence?

When is the last time you assessed your skill set? Most of us do this once or twice a year, usually during review time. But is that enough? Shouldn’t self-improvement—or professional development—be a recurring act?

Exhibit A: A surgeon who has performed appendectomies via surgical knife for years is comfortable with that procedure—and historically, that has been a good thing. Wouldn’t you want to see the surgeon who knows that procedure like the back of his hand? But, with the inception of laparoscopic surgery, it became possible—and safer—for certain appendectomies to be performed without the use of a knife.

Can you imagine if a surgeon—citing comfort—elected to stick with the “old” method? I don’t know about you, but I’d be up and headed for the door in a hot minute in the setting of such complacency.

Certain professional disciplines (like surgery) require their practitioners to consistently engage in the process of learning the newest, most innovative techniques through Continuing Medical Education (CME). The profession’s standards dictate the avoidance of complacency.

Maybe your field isn’t subject to such concrete standards, but how often do you attempt to stay current or brush up on your expertise?

Change is daunting

If you aren’t bothering to assess your professional self because it’s simply easier to stay where you are—don’t fret—you aren’t alone. Life sometimes gets in the way and it’s perfectly human to lose ourselves in the familiarity of our days. After all, change isn’t always comfortable. And, we like feeling like we’re good at what we do. Why upset the delicate balance we’ve achieved?

But reader beware: misinterpreting comfort for fear of change may breed complacency.

Comfortable patterns easily become maladaptive cycles so it’s up to us to pay attention to when we start to coast. Writing this is reminding me that I’ve still got two years to complete a post-master’s program I started way too long ago. I should put my money where my mouth is and figure out how to incorporate it back into my schedule. I feel I’m good at what I do, but I know I could be better.

Assessing and combating complacency

It’s easy to make justifications, rationalizations, and excuses for why we are comfortable where we are instead of acknowledging the possibility that maybe there is room—or that it’s time—for improvement.

So, if this post is raising a suspicion that your sense of comfort is actually just disguised complacency, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is my level of inspiration to show up each day? Feeling uninspired is a good sign that it’s time for something to change. Spend some time thinking about how (and when) you used to feel inspired. Get back in touch with your newly-hired self.
  • Are you meeting the challenge to be your best professional self? This is part two of autopilot. Are you “striving” or “being?” If you’ve lost sight of wanting to be “better,” how can you change your routine so that you re-engage with challenging yourself?
  • How are you staying current? Do you take advantage of professional development opportunities? Knowledge is everything. Stay informed or you’ll be left behind.
  • Do you search for, or act upon, new opportunities? How willing are you to take on new challenges and responsibilities? Not wanting to add too much to our plate is an easy complacency trap. You think you’re comfortable but are you sure you aren’t actually being lazy?
  • How much do you contribute to the workplace conversation? Are you an active part of the team? If you’re a hesitant participant, is it because others around you seem to bring more to the table? Feelings of inadequacy may be a sign that it’s time to polish up your relevance game.

Channel ancient Greek athletes

So there you have it—your 5-step complacency inventory. Keep in mind that resting on one's laurels isn't uncommon. If it were, the cliche wouldn’t exist. In fact, when writing this piece, I became curious about the origins of this phrase. So, I took the non-complacent initiative and learned that ancient Greek athletes were crowned with wreaths of laurel as a reward for their athletic triumphs. And so, it followed that if they rested on those laurels, they ceased to excel at their sport.

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About the Author | Jennifer Abcug, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in New York City, where she specializes in women’s life transitions. Prior to this, she counseled patients and families at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Convinced the earth moved after reading Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” the question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” has become a focal point of Jennifer’s practice.

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