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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Secret to Starting a Big Project at Work: Treat it Like an Adventure

Starting a new project at work can be difficult. Whether you’re consulting, freelancing, or just taking on a new initiative, your first day on a project is full of unknowns.

Travel is the same way. Stepping off the plane in a foreign country (not knowing a word of the language) and hoping not only to make it to your hotel, but to see the sights, meet new friends, and have new experiences can be a little daunting. I’ve had the stressful experiences of chasing down trains in Rome and getting lost in Kyoto, but they’ve always been worth it in the end (think: a hike up the coast of Italy and a guided meditation in a Japanese temple).

Just like travel, a new challenge at work is also a great opportunity for growth. Check out five comparisons below to help you succeed on your next project.

1. You’re Limited in Your Preparation

There’s only so much research you can do before you visit a new destination. Sure, you probably read some articles, mapped out your itinerary and routes, and asked friends about their experiences. And all of that preparation is valuable—but it’s no substitute for actually walking around and seeing the sights.

Taking on new professional responsibilities is a similar process. You may talk to your colleagues and read up on why a new initiative matters, but no matter how much you prepare, your first week on the project will be significantly more enlightening. Often times, things are different in practice than they are in theory.

So, approach your preparation as a way to give yourself context for your assignment, rather than jumping to conclusions. Don’t try to solve everything before your work even begins (that would be like assuming a virtual tour would provide the same experience as visiting a historic site). Once you’re there—on assignment or on vacation—you’ll be able to best see how exactly you fit in.

2. You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

There are plenty of unknowns when you're traveling—even when you think you've got it all figured out. A few years ago, I was flying from Budapest to Rome and then taking a train to Perugia with some friends. To maximize our time in Budapest, we got a late flight back, but by the time our flight landed in Rome, the trains had stopped running to Perugia. We spent the night sleeping against the train station doors with the homeless of Rome simply because we hadn’t thought to check the flight and train schedules against each other.

Similarly, you may think you’re making plenty of progress on a project until you hit an obstacle that you had never considered. Maybe you and your team are making headway, so you split your focus, dig into the next task—and find yourself in deep water. Suddenly things need to get cleared through legal, you’ve got conflicting leadership personalities, or you learn that your previous analysis was missing two variables that nobody thought of.

In work and travel, build in some resources to address unforeseen time and costs. To really excel, list obstacles you may run into and the actions you’ll take when they come up. If you manage to side-step them—great; either way, you’ll be more prepared.

3. You Have to (Somewhat) Learn the Language

Depending on where you travel, you may be surrounded by locals who speak a foreign language. And when that’s the case, it can be difficult to accomplish even simple tasks like finding your hotel or grabbing something to eat. So, you ask a lot of questions and fall back on primitive pointing and gestures. Then, as you get accustomed to the environment, you’re able to understand more and maybe even speak a bit.

If you’re working in a new field or collaborating with members of a different department, they’re probably speaking English—but it still could be Greek to you. Tech-speak—even workplace lingo—may sound like gibberish when you first hear it. And, the language is so natural to the native speakers (in this case, your new co-workers) that they don’t even realize they’re excluding you. So, you may feel like you have to ask a lot of dumb questions to catch up.

But remember, the only way you’ll get to using jargon in hallway conversation is if you learn it in the first place. So, admit when you don’t know something. Ask about strange terms. Take notes and ask how things relate to each other. You’ll immediately be more credible and trustworthy than you would be if you had guessed and were way off-base.

4. You Learn a Lot About Yourself

Travel can expose you to amazing new experiences. You may try something and absolutely love it, or you may decide that it isn’t for you. When I visited the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (where restaurants bid on the fresh catch of the morning), we got kicked out pretty quickly after they figured out we weren’t bidding on anything. So, we ate some sushi across the street. I wasn’t previously a sushi fan, but eating the freshest fish caught just hours before was an eye-opening (and delicious) experience for me.

At work, you may stumble upon roles or specialties that appeal to you—or that you’d absolutely like to avoid. You may find that you really like client relations or that you would like to do more copywriting in the future. You may wrap up a budgeting and forecasting session and decide that’s something you’d love to delegate next time.

No matter what, though, more experiences means a stronger understanding of your skills and preferences. Be open to new responsibilities and projects that might not be in your current comfort zone. When you try something new, pay attention to how it makes you feel—and don’t be afraid to ask for more of what you like.

5. You Get to Try Something New

The challenges and mystery of starting something new may be daunting—but it’s also what makes it fun. Accomplishing what you set out to is a great feeling. It could be the simple victory of navigating public transportation to find your hotel or picking up a useful phrase. That rush of figuring out the unknown is one of the best parts of traveling to new places.

Although a new project at work may include a stressful ramp-up and learning curve, there’s also the excitement that comes with conquering a challenge and rapidly learning a new skill. It’s easy to avoid discomfort, but new aptitudes often end up being really useful down the line.

Seek out that unknown in your career. Find those stretch roles that expose you to something new. Embrace new experiences and the challenges that come with them.

Photo of man on bench courtesy of Shutterstock.