When I took a job in Warsaw, Poland in 1997, I really didn't know what I was getting into. I had never been overseas for an extended period of time before, didn't speak any foreign languages, except for some rudimentary Spanish and, truth be told, I didn't have any idea how to cope in a strange country.
The first six months were incredibly difficult. Left largely to my own devices, I struggled to adapt to my new environment. At night, I sometimes got so lonely that I would call my bank in the US to check my balance -- which was probably about eight bucks at the time -- just to have someone to talk to.
Gradually, more out of necessity than anything else, I began to adapt and learned how to overcome my discomfort. I ended up spending 15 years in Eastern Europe, including stints in Kyiv, Moscow and Istanbul and did business in a number of other countries. What I found was that breaking out of my comfort zone gave me essential skills that last a lifetime.
Breaking Off From The Pack
When you find yourself in a new country, especially one with a developing economy, it's easy to fall into with ex-pat community. There is no small amount of comfort in spending time with people who share your culture and experiences. In Poland, which was just beginning to emerge as a post-communist country, the lure was especially strong.
Yet I soon became bored with international scene. Many of those I met were, somewhat like the Dickens character Wilkins Micawber, mostly unaccomplished executives who had been thrust into senior positions. They were also often brimming with tedious overconfidence. Feeling out of place, I began looking for "normal people" in a less stuffy environment.
I found it in a run-down pub called "Czternaszka" that was hidden in an out-of-the way pocket in Warsaw's Old Town. I would go there on Monday nights when things were slow and stumble through a conversation with a "barmanka" named Dorota, who would patiently write down the words in Polish I didn't know for me to study later. Slowly, my language skills improved.
Soon I became a regular and got to know my fellow patrons. As luck would have it, there was a theatre academy around the corner and many of those "normal people" I met turned out to be up-and-coming actors who were on the brink of fame. In the years to come, many would be impressed by my celebrity connections, but never guessed at their humble origins.
Learning How To Hack
In my old life in the US, I learned to work within a system. As a small part of a larger whole, I was supposed to "stay in my lane." When something came up that was out of my normal purview, I would go down the hall to someone who specialized in whatever needed to be done. Yet in Poland, everything was new. There was no system and no specialist down the hall.
Now when a problem came up, I had to figure it out for myself. That meant cobbling together bits and pieces from anywhere I could find them, seeing what worked and iterating toward a solution. It was challenging, fun and, as I soon found, something the Poles had been doing for a long time. They had always lived in a broken system, so evolved to become master hackers.
The Poles called it "kombinować" and it worked like this: Say you wanted to build a house and needed bricks. You couldn't purchase them, because nobody had thought to include your preference for shelter in the government's central plan. Even if you had the money to buy them, you would need a special permit. So buying bricks directly would be out of the question.
So you would start by getting your hands on something else, like a bicycle. You could then trade the bicycle to get some chocolates and bring those chocolates to the lady at the meat store. With that invaluable extra ration of meat, you might be able to finally get your bricks. Then you would repeat the process for nails, wood and so on.
Of course, this was all a incredible waste of time and energy, but it embedded improvisation into the culture and I learned a lot from it. I soon found myself able to jump into any situation and feel confident I could figure things out.
Becoming The "Dumbest Guy In The Room"
In a traditional environment, there is value to being the smartest guy in the room. That's how you get the prestige you need to get people to listen to you and shape decisions and events. In a new environment though, that's not an option. So you have to learn to get comfortable with being the dumbest guy in the room.
As my career progressed, I eventually found myself running a company with 800 employees and a dozen different lines of business. I realized that there was an advantage to being the dumbest guy in the room. It allowed me to go to each department, every day, ask questions and learn. The more dumb questions I asked, the smarter I got.
It also helped me integrate our operations and innovate. I might have been the dumbest guy in each particular room, but I was the only one who was familiar with every room and the people in them. That helped me to see connections no one else could, identify problems and opportunities and come up with effective solutions and strategies.
Since I returned to the US and started writing for Harvard Business Review, Forbes and, most recently, Inc, I found that being comfortable with my own ignorance allowed me to explore areas as diverse as quantum computing, cancer immunotherapy and social movements. I'm not the world's greatest expert in any of them, but one of the few who understands all three.
Innovation Always Starts With Exploration
In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I got the opportunity to speak to a number of the world's most innovative people. I found that one thing that almost all of them had in common was a certain fearlessness. To achieve what they did, each one had to go beyond their comfort zone and risk being the dumbest guy in the room.
Charlie Bennett was a biochemistry student when he decided to take an elective course in the theory of computation. Today he is considered the father of quantum information theory. Jim Allison had to leave the comfort of his lab and prostrate himself before pharmaceutical executives to create his miracle cure. Srdja Popović left his dreams of being a bass guitarist in a rock band to help found Otpor and overthrow Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević.
Startup guru Steve Blank urges his disciples to get out of the building and talk to customers. That's always a good idea, but it's not nearly enough. You need to get out of the building and talk to everybody -- suppliers, competitors, people in other industries. That's the only way you can discover new things -- especially those you weren't even looking for -- and combine them in new and unexpected ways.
My friend Lu Ann Cahn left her job as an Emmy winning reporter and now urges people to "do the new" because, there is something to be gained from the challenge. When you stretch your horizons, you not only gain new experiences, but also learn that you are capable of going even a bit further the next time.