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Engaging in Productive Discomfort

Jane Wurwand September 2008 issue of Skin Inc. magazine
business woman climbing ladder

Feeling comfortable and competent in your current work mode? It's a nice feeling and you worked hard to get there, but, believe it or not, it's not a good thing if you want your business to thrive. Take a hard look at how you do business today. Are your displays dusty or dated? Are your shelves occupied with products that don’t relate to skin care, such as candles and slippers? Do you give your treatments in the back of the house? Does your shop lack the feeling of an energy force field, drawing clients back again and again?

Your approach to treatments and take-homes are where changes must begin. You need to reimagine your retailing area so it generates at least 50% of your revenue. And think about bringing treatments out of the singing-whales-CD, crystal-aromatherapy cavelike back room to the front and center of your floor plan, much like a gourmet chef who designs his restaurant around the high-tech kitchen visible on all four sides to diners.

Beyond starter skills

Feeling relaxed is just one click on the dial away from complacency, and this complacency is why professional skin care is hurting these days. Blaming it on the economy? You should know our profession has been called recession-proof. If you’re bottom line is not robust, it’s likely because you’re too comfortable and not creating relevance for your business.

Typically, this means that service, versus retailing, dominates your business model. And typically, skin therapists don’t love to sell, they love to give nurturing treatments. A deep tissue change is needed, and it may make you uncomfortable. However, the payoff will be a more interactive, entertaining and client-friendly beehive that should generate greater buzz and greater profits.

When we are first starting out as skin therapists, it’s very important to develop and polish our basic skills, just as all children must learn to read, write, count, add and subtract in order to function in the world. I think of this level of elementary competence as skin care literacy—effleurage, petrissage, tapotement, painless extractions—these are the core skills that define us as professionals. But to truly shine, we have to move beyond what the Irish wit Oscar Wilde called “the last refuge of the truly unimaginative”—namely, competence.

From complacently competent to charging forward

Competence is what gets us through the day when we’re simply functioning on autopilot. We all have those occasional days when we wish we could phone it in because we can’t find it within ourselves be 200% present as we double-cleanse, exfoliate, treat, mask, massage and so on. Ever arrive at your job in the morning and not really remember how you got there? Have no idea what exit you take off the freeway when someone calls the front desk asking for directions? This is the function of competence, created through memory and repetition. It carries us through when we feel brain-dead, and once in a while it is a lifesaver.

So is comfortable competence really such a bad thing? If you’re striving for greatness, the answer is yes. We have to push ourselves in order to find our greatness. We like to do things the way we’ve always done them because doing so makes us feel competent, and we make fewer mistakes this way. However, the trouble with the competent route is that, metaphorically speaking, it makes us flabby.

If you’re not feeling incompetent at least some of the time, then you’re probably stuck in a rut and aren’t trying hard enough. I’m in favor of risking looking incompetent if you’re doing so on the journey to something great. This experience is what I call productive discomfort. Productive discomfort can be exhilarating, and to break through to entrepreneurial greatness, you must learn to actually enjoy the pounding of your heart that accompanies pure terror. And honestly, a little fear won’t kill you.

In fact, taking risks is one of the things that allows us to innovate, according to scientists. A recent article in the New York Times titled “Unboxed: Can You Become A Creature of New Habits?” by Janet Rae-Dupree states, “brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.”

Shifting to stretch

M.J. Ryan and Dawna Markova are authors, executive change consultants and business partners in a company called Professional Thinking Partners. Their job: to get professionals to step outside their habitual comfort zones and think more innovatively. Ryan and Markova have identified three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Too much comfort and we never get off the couch, but too much stress and we’re living in a nightmare equivalent to a Stephen King novel. The place of real magic is that middle zone they call stretch, where things are awkward and unfamiliar, but we still maintain enough competence to function. This is where we locate our potential, and specifically, our greatness.

Tiny, continuous improvements also lead to larger shifts. For instance, look at your waiting area. Is that tired sofa and those tattered magazines really the best use of your space? Instead, consider creating a treatment environment for abbreviated, super-targeted skin care services, such as treating a sunburn or a sudden blemish. Ditto for your tester unit display. Consider creating your own interactive play area where one or two clients may be seated on bar stools and allowed sample products. Provide steam, towels, headbands, skin-friendly beverages and cotton swabs to make the experience truly immersing.

Be brave

So, in the end, I encourage you to fumble. Get on the wrong train. Order the funkiest thing on the menu, or, better yet, go to a restaurant where you can’t read the menu at all and ask someone at the next table to order for you. Take a chance. Because only by reaching beyond what we know all too well may we catch the first glimpses of what is truly possible.

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