Last weekend, I went cross-country skiing for the first time ever.  My husband, who XC skiied a handful of times as a kid, offered to teach me the basics, so we went out together on some trails near our house.

I should mention that my husband is a talented athlete.  He’s one of those annoying people who pick up new sports and skills with ease.  He’s also somewhat fearless:  his philosophy is that you learn, and get better, by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone—sink or swim, to use another sports analogy.

Left to my own devices, I probably would have taken a few spins around the green (easy) trail, until I felt confident in my technique, and then MAYBE ventured out onto the blue (moderate) trail.  Instead, I found myself following my husband from the green trail quickly to the blue trail (seriously, I think we were on the green trail for all of 5 minutes), and onto, I discovered after the fact, the black diamond trail.  (Him:  But you were doing so well!  I knew you could handle it.)  And I actually was very proud of myself for how well I did, tackling the hills with, well ok not ease, but confidence that I could get up and get myself back down again.  Letting myself enjoy the moment and the challenge.  And now that I know that I can do a black diamond, I feel more confident about going out onto the trails again—it’s a great motivator for me.

We all need people who are willing to push us out of our comfort zone, “challengers” as I like to call them.  Sometimes being uncomfortable is the only way we’ll learn a particular lesson, or get better at some particular thing, or gain the confidence we need to tackle a bigger task.

It occurred to me, on reflecting about my ski adventure, that I currently lack a challenger in my professional life.  Sure, I do a passable enough job challenging myself, whether that’s applying for a competitive grant or sending out my work before I think it’s completely ready or trying risky things in the classroom.  Feeling uncomfortable is a great motivator for me.  But I think I need someone who will push me further.  Someone who will push me not just to submit my work, but to submit it to the highest tier conferences (which I’ve mostly avoided out of…fear?).  Someone who can get me to think more pie-in-the-sky about my research and take more risks with that.  I’m in a bit of a holding pattern, especially in my research, right now, and I need a good swift kick in the pants to get me not just out of my comfort zone, but way out of my comfort zone, to move out of this holding pattern and either fail spectacularly or make some real progress.  (actually that doesn’t have to be either-or, since some of my spectacular failures have led to great progress as well.)

So in the coming weeks, I’m going to try to identify a challenger, most likely within my existing mentoring network, but possibly a new not-yet-a-mentor contact—maybe I need some really fresh thinking as well as a kick in the pants!

Do you have a challenger?  If so, what role does s/he play in your professional life?