Stretching Outside of My Comfort Zone

Posted on February 14, 2024

A blackboard with the words "comfort zone" in a word bubble on the left and the words "where the magic happens" in a word bubble on the right. The words are written in chalf and a hand hovers over the words "comfort zone."

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Jen Teal, Manager at Raftelis. Connect with Jen on LinkedIn.

What I’m Reading: I’m juggling three books right now – Greedy Bastards in preparation for Sheryl Scully’s keynote at the Ohio City & County Management Association’s annual conference, Beartown by Fredrik Bachman, and The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman – keeping the algorithm guessing with all my genres!

What I’m Working on: Its conference season! I’m facilitating sessions at this week’s Utility Management Conference and another at the OCMA annual conference later this month.

A Hobby I Enjoy: January resolutions have me back on the Peloton (@BlueGreenJen) and doing Zentangle.

I’m writing this Buzz from 35,000 feet on my way to Portland, Oregon for the Utility Management Conference (UMC). UMC is an annual conference hosted by the Water Environment Federation and American Water Works Association. It’s a week full of sessions for professional water and wastewater operators, engineers, managers, and the firms that partner with them. My firm, Raftelis, has been a long time supporter of UMC, but this will be my first time attending.

I came up in my career as a traditional MPA type with a focus on local government. While I did spend a couple years as the business manager for a stormwater utility, the bulk of my direct service career was in general government. I’ve spent the last several years in management consulting, supporting local governments and utilities around the country.

For the last 20+ years, my professional association involvement has been general/local government focused. I attended my first ICMA conference in 2002, and have been an ELGL superfan since the mid-2010s. This week’s UMC conference is my first foray into the utility conference universe and it’s weird to admit, but I’m a little nervous!

For those of us who have a professional association or two that we’ve been a part of for a number of years, attending the annual conference can feel like homecoming. You see old friends and colleagues, you know the professional and social norms, and even if you’ve never been to the host city before, you feel like you know where you’re going and what you’re doing.

As I fly into Portland, I have the distinct sensation of being the new kid at school. I stressed more than usual about what to pack, spent extra time pouring over the conference program, and even though I know there will be a couple people here that I know, I’ve noticed myself being nervous about who I’ll eat lunch with and sit with during sessions.

Perhaps I’d be a little less nervous if I weren’t jumping in the deep end of the pool. It’s not just my first UMC, I’m facilitating two sessions during the conference. One is a super fun half-day pre-conference workshop where my colleagues and I will be leading Wateropolis – a water utility-themed simulation that helps participants understand all of the various facets and values associated with budgeting for a water utility – and it’s a board game! The other is a session where I’m spotlighting the awesome learning and development work that two organizations I work with (The City of Monroe, OH and Louisville Water Company) are doing to build their leadership bench from within. And I want both sessions to go really well!

The point of this Buzz post isn’t to bare my insecurities to the world… but to acknowledge that no matter how far along we are in our careers, there will always be new experiences that push us outside of our comfort zones. And that’s a good thing. It’s where the magic happens!

When I think back at the personal and professional experiences that have been the most impactful and memorable, many of them were ones where I felt this type of discomfort. Like when I flew to London to complete an overnight power walking marathon, when I gave my first budget presentation to Council, and when I joined the adjunct faculty at Ohio State. Each of these experiences came with a raft of nerves and a big helping of existential discomfort. But preparation, determination, and a fair amount of “fake it till you make it” swagger got me through.

So that’s what I’ll focus on this week. If you happen to be hanging out at UMC this week, hit me up! And the next time you’re feeling a little bit like the new kid at school, remember that you’re not alone – we all feel that way sometimes – and it’s worth it.

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