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Lessons from the Discomfort Zone


Cass Zawadowski has just moved back to her native Canada after four years abroad to become VP Creative Director at Wunderman Canada – here’s what she learned from her time away

Lessons from the Discomfort Zone
The best thing I’ve learned is to always be learning. Catapulting yourself into a new city or culture is a great way to start. About five years ago, it was time to reheat my creative skillset, make a change. That is when my ‘work abroad’ chapter began. 

I started with a ‘close to home’ move, and set my eyes on one particular agency in NYC. I pounded on their door until the right opportunity came up. I then spent two years reworking my portfolio while learning from one of the industry’s greats. They say sometimes all it takes is one new experience to make you crave another. I can vouch, there is no truer statement! It was my time in NYC that developed my itch to try things the European way and Germany was next on the map. I spent two years leading inspiring and fast-paced global accounts. With time also spent in Asia, I worked across three continents in five years. And while there were different cities, different perspectives, different briefs, different clients, there were also a lot of the same lessons. Here are some of the things I take with me after numerous years abroad. I hope they not only serve as shared lessons, but offer inspiration to take the leap and experience life abroad for yourself. 

NYC taught me that camaraderie in the creative world is possible. A 120+ creative department will do that to you. It also taught me about perseverance and tenacity. You can never have too much of either. 

I learned that moving without a partner (work or romantic) can be scary.  There’s no one to rely on, to stick up for you, or to hang out with on weekends. But learning to rely on yourself will only make you stronger. And eventually, you’ll make (great) friends!

I also learned that a comfort zone can be the most dangerous place. But forcing yourself to do things that make you feel uneasy, or even make your heart beat out of your chest, eventually leads to the discomfort zone. And let me tell you, that’s the place you want to be. Not many people live there.  

My time in Europe taught me to say ‘yes’ to new adventures. You don’t get much exposure to the EMEA market here in Canada.  And becoming a better and more strategic creative was my ultimate goal. 

I learned that awards are not the be-all, end-all or all they’re cracked up to be. And that doing the hard work on the difficult clients and brands is just as rewarding, just as challenging, and just as respected. 

I learned not to let other people’s definition of success cloud my own. I learned that some people don’t like a strong, opinionated woman in the room. But I also learned that that’s a room I don’t want to be in anyway. 

Sure, living abroad can seem daunting at times. You’ll miss family and friends and the comforts of home. But if you hang in there just long enough to break free from that, you’ll see and feel the magic in it. Not to say you won’t miss ‘what you know’, but you’ll focus your energy on the gifts that come with those experiences, rather than what they fear and risk. Change is good. And it can become a philosophy to crave. 

I learned the best thing you could ever do for yourself is look fear straight in the eye and say, ‘not this time’. 

I hope if you get the chance to work abroad, you don’t sit it out or pass it up. Grab the opportunity and go. It’s one of the most challenging, rewarding, and unforgettable experiences you could ever have, professionally and personally. If you don’t try, it’ll be filed in the dusty pile of things you wished you’d done. 

Cass Zawadowski is VP Creative Director at Wunderman Canada
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