Your boss hands you a task you have never done before, and your mind begins to race. These brief and unexpected moments of panic place us squarely at the crossroads of stagnation and development. It's a good thing.

Admit it.  You’ve done this too.

Your boss hands you a task you have never done before, and your mind begins to race.  ‘I have no clue how to do this. Why would they stick me with a job I can’t handle? How am I going to get this done?

These brief and unexpected moments of panic place us squarely at the crossroads of stagnation and development.  You can easily tell your boss, “Sorry, I don’t know how to do that.” Or you can take the professional road less-traveled, trusting your instincts, current skillset and the belief that somehow you will get it done.

The second strategy sure is working for many 20-somethings on Capitol Hill as was made clear in a recent National Journal article from the publication’s “Hill People” issue, which includes data and profiles of high-level Congressional staffers.

Take, for instance, Katie Grant, a 28-year-old communications director for the House Minority Whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).  Do you think Katie has that job – at that age – by shirking from new and potentially unnerving opportunities? No way.

To climb the ladder at any organization, we (young folk) have to be willing to step outside of what is comfortable and just go for it.  There is no possible way we have the knowledge base in our 20s to do any and all tasks effortlessly.  But the savvy among us know something just as valuable: your experience thus far combined with the ability to learn as you go will almost always lead to success.

Recently at my own job, I was handed a task that, at first, I thought I couldn’t do.  My boss asked me to write a consulting “white paper” for a client.  I didn’t know what a white paper was much less what goes into it.  But my answer was simple: “Sure, I can handle that.”

After we finished our conversation, I went to work… learning about white papers and how to write them.  I found some examples online and determined what mine should look like.  Then I leaned on my writing and research skills to put it together. A week later, the job was finished, and I presented the white paper to my appreciative boss. Mission accomplished. At the jump, I kinda panicked.  I really had no idea what to do.  But once my nerves settled, I began to think strategically about how to tackle the project.  I already had the necessary skills to write a white paper. I just needed to think it through, take my time and trust myself.

Our generation is smart, capable and unparalleled in our ability to learn quickly.  You might even amaze yourself by taking on a project that once seemed scary and unfamiliar. Plus, you will impress your higher-ups, and the next time they will hopefully give you larger responsibilities (i.e. Katie Grant).

At our age, respect in the workplace is earned, and proving yourself to a superior is a great way to build a reputation. The only sure guarantee of failure?
Saying ‘No, I can’t’ right from the start.

Danny Rubin is a member of the Brazen Contributor Network.


  1. Tatiana

    Trusting yourself is so important, I think, and it can be easy to get caught up in the “I’ve never done this before!” mentality. Today I started volunteering and since I haven’t been actively socializing for several months, I started panicking about my potential inability to talk to other humans. But – it’s been fine. I’m still abnormally normal and haven’t lost my personality. Or mind.

    But I also think this mentality is important when job hunting – being willing to take a chance on a job even if you’re not ENTIRELY sure you can do it because it’s new or different. You have to start from somewhere right? Sometimes (if not all the time), you have to trust yourself.

  2. Ty Unglebower

    Seems to me that challenge is good, but you are just as likley to get yourself in trouble by just smiling, lying through big teeth and saying “sure boss!” when you in fact do not know how to do what you have been asked to do.

    Then when it all crumbles you and the boss look stupid. Then nobody on Capitol Hill comes knocking for you, now do they?

    I think this whole denial of limitations and outward bravado is too deeply ingrained in the current generation, and will continue to be lauded over honesty and sincerity in the workplace so long as somebody somewhere can point to a person who took a (foolish) leap off of a craggy cliff and somehow ended up on a yacht down below.

    Expand your horizons, yes. But stepping in front of a train just to feel the exhilaration on the other side of the track should you survive?

    • Anonymous

      Ty…all fair points. To be sure, I am not a daredevil on the job and don’t ‘step in front of a train’ just to get ahead. My point is simply to take on a new project, within reason, and learn as you go. Stepping up to a challenge is a surefire way to impress higher ups and prove you can handle increased responsibility.

      Outward bravado has nothing to do with it. It’s about becoming a reliable and dependable member of a team who will step up when called upon. That quality should be lauded by a person of any generation.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Scott Messinger

    Ever heard the saying “History is written by the victors”?

    That applies here. You always hear about those who jumped in over their head and succeeded. You never hear about those who failed miserably.

    After many years, you learn your limits. Be willing to try something new, but don’t be afriad to say “I’m not sure about that, could you give me some guidance?” If you don’t, you may find a lot of bosses willing to give you enough rope to hang yourself.

    • Anonymous

      Great point, Scott. I think a young employee also has the right to ask questions if the task is too overwhelming or unfamiliar. I should have made that clearer in my post.

      But whenever possible, I strive for independence on the job. Come to a boss with a problem when necessary, but I find time and again I can often troubleshoot my own issues if I think about it long enough.

      Thanks for posting a comment!

  4. kaleigh somers

    I think it’s easy to shy away from what we’ve never done because we usually can’t see ourselves doing it, but that’s the only way to grow, and it’s always been the only way to grow. It’s not a new concept. You’re so right. If we take what we know and our desire to learn more, we’ll figure it out eventually. I truly believe that. Maybe that’s why I’m Gen Y?

  5. Morana Medved

    I agree that you should never be afraid of the task just because you haven’t done it before, or shy away from accepting it. I have been successful in the workplace due to my ability to say “sure, I can do that”. But I think too many people get themselves in trouble by not asking for help (I’ve done it before), not necessarily from your boss but from your workplace resources and your network resources. It is important to do your own research, too, when applicable, but consulting people with expertise is crucial. I have a reputation of always being willing to help with any area of my expertise and in return I have a large circle of coworkers and professional contacts I can turn to. Too many junior employees just turn to Google which 80% of time is not the most efficient way to go – go out there and ask people. They’ll appreciate it. Your boss will appreciate it. And you’ll do a better job.

  6. Deepak P

    The savvy young people know there’s internet for help.

  7. K_leighmic

    I was hired as a Graphic Designer and was handed a resume during my third week at work. I had written my own, but never any other, and especially not the military resume that I was expected to tackle. With some questions, examples, and research, I now consider myself a fairly proficient resume writer. Not something I ever expected to be doing, but I actually enjoy it 🙂

  8. Kelly

    you’ve got the bubble-accepting a certain amount of risk and tackling unfamiliar territory are key components to becoming the indipensible, go-to guy. Took me a lot longer to figure that out- good for you!

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