Great leaders are creative thinkers whose attitudes reflect a maturity from having been exposed to many ideas beyond the realm of their comfort zones. How can you leap out of yours?
Walking face-first out of the 17th floor of a building in La Paz, Bolivia was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Since then, I have come to learn that what I did is called “rap jumping” – it originated in Australia, and certain people do it for fun. I was one of those people, but it wasn’t fun until I had descended vertically half a football field to where both feet were safely on the ground, and more importantly, safely in my comfort zone.
Defining Your Comfort Zone
Your comfort zone is that beautiful place of familiarity and routine. Your behavior and the behavior of those around you can be anticipated and the obvious benefits to this are low anxiety, general contentment, and safety.
This is your happy place, and you can and should spend time there. But science and anecdotal evidence reveal that to always live in the comfort zone leads to stagnation, of which one definition is: “a failure to develop, progress, or advance.” No one wants his or her career/life to be described in those words. So what do we do to move out of this place of comfort? And does it really make a tangible difference if we do?
First, moving out of your comfort zone requires that you identify the boundaries of that zone to expand that perimeter and continually take on bigger challenges. Ask yourself questions such as:
- What work tasks are uncomfortable because they require more discipline and responsibility than I typically care for, but would be rewarding if achieved?
- What is something I admire in other people but believe I would fail at if I tried?
- What activity or job is simultaneously frightening and exhilarating to consider attempting?
- What do I wish I knew how to do, but have never learned?
- What task at work do I think is too challenging for me to take on?
- Do I proactively seek new challenges or just manage those I already have?
Until you have identified your comfort zone, you cannot get out of it. And from an unidentified comfort zone, it is incredibly easy to slip into complacency and be wholly unaware that you are ignoring an entire world of the unknown that is actually a beautiful place of growth.
Sometimes we stay in our comfort zone out of simple ignorance, but sometimes out of fear. When it is the latter, we tend to villainize the unknown, exaggerating the perceived negatives to the point that we convince ourselves that failure is imminent should we venture outside the familiar. When I bought my first car I had never negotiated the cost of a vehicle, yet I knew I wanted to pay less than the sticker price. However, I convinced myself the seller would know more than I did, he would be offended at the price I was willing to offer, he would scoff at my offer, I would look stupid, and I would ultimately end up walking away paying the original price, thus achieving nothing. I gave up before I even started, decided I was content with the asking price, and stayed within my realm of familiarity. But someone else would be invigorated by this process.
Which leads to my next point: your comfort zone is unique to you. That person who is completely comfortable driving a hard bargain with a car salesman may be terrified of public speaking. And while I do not enjoy the art of negotiation, I thrive on commanding the attention of a roomful of people and speaking to them. So do not look to other people for what is or is not in your comfort zone.
Moving Beyond Your Comfort Zone
Once you’ve identified the boundary of what is comfortable for you and what is outside of that zone, look for opportunities to move into that space of risk. This does not mean you take on challenges that truly terrify you. Instead, you look for growth opportunities that will push you to a place of optimal anxiety where you are forced to engage and stretch yourself, but you are not in panic mode that can lead to failure.
Maybe for you, this is spending evenings teaching yourself a new computer language instead of watching The Bachelor. Maybe it’s quitting your job to take on a more rewarding, albeit riskier one. Maybe it’s taking a vacation alone, volunteering to tutor underprivileged children on your Saturday mornings, deleting your Facebook account, or learning to be a stunt pilot.
As you continue to seek out these types of risk situations, you will find that your comfort zone grows and your panic zone shrinks. Your confidence builds, and the voice of negativity is diminished. Your creativity and problem-solving skills are enhanced, and your desire for routine tasks is reduced.
You will find yourself drawing on past experiences and applying them to new situations, which equals growth. The benefits to this are almost innumerable, but I have listed five of these below:
1. You will stay in shape mentally,
Leaving your comfort zone keeps you sharp. Taking on unfamiliar, demanding tasks is a chance for your brain to enter new terrain, learn new patterns, and stimulate parts of the mind that typically lie dormant. The key is that these are unfamiliar activities that involve complex problem-solving skills that your mind cannot complete as part of a routine. The good news is that when these types of activities are done with other people, the benefits increase even more as you interact with one another. So grab a friend to try something new, or join a group to learn a new skill together. Performing cognitively challenging activities while engaging socially with others is a perfect formula for growth. Try these activities to get out of your comfort zone.
2. You will develop creativity and be increasingly seen as a thought leader.
When you open yourself to new ideas, experiences, and people, you will be inspired by the variety of people and ideas you encounter in unfamiliar situations, and you will be confronted with your own prejudices, fears, and beliefs which force you to evaluate in light of new information. As you move outside of that safe place where everyone you encounter always agrees with you, you will be more empathetic to others, more inclined to help others, and better able to approach a situation from another’s point of view. Great leaders are creative thinkers whose attitudes reflect a maturity from having been exposed to many ideas beyond the realm of their comfort zones.
3. You will be more productive.
You will be energized by the adrenaline that comes with the relative anxiety of life outside the familiar. Routines lull you into a half-hearted performance that is not your best work and does not produce the results you could be getting. You never have to stretch yourself. The longer you stay here, the more you doubt your ability to perform outside of this safety net, and the less you will feel enjoyment from your daily life. Removing yourself from this checked-out mindset forces your senses to be on high alert and you naturally achieve more than when you fall into the “work” trap.
4. You will become more flexible and versatile personally and professionally.
The more you get out of your comfort zone, the less stressed you are when things do not go your way. You are able to take setbacks in stride, you react more positively to disappointing circumstances, and you realize that the world is not ending each time you get an email from that person-who-requires-extra-grace at work. You’ve jumped out of an airplane where you were harnessed to only a circle of nylon cloth keeping you from certain death. What’s a little delay in your project start date? You’ve got this. You will find that you are able to step into a variety of situations and lead with confidence in ways you would never have thought to before. As your flexibility increases, your ability to innovate also increases and those who innovate in today’s fast-paced world are those who will succeed.
5. You will be prepared for whatever life throws at you.
Life is going to throw curve balls your way. By seeking out “risk zone” situations, you practice with expected challenges in a controlled environment. When life’s curve balls hit, they are not so shocking or deleterious and you are far better equipped to handle them. You cannot move through life pretending that pain and discomfort do not exist; to do so is extremely harmful. Instead, place yourself in situations to confront these emotions from a place of relative safety. The more that you seek out discomfort, the more it becomes comfortable. Your comfort zone grows, your tolerance for the unexpected grows, your abilities grow, and your enjoyment of life in general grows.
These benefits and more are yours for the taking as you step into that place of temporary discomfort in order to achieve lasting success. You will feel awkward and self-conscious at times, but one year from now you will wish you had started today.
Growing and Moving Beyond
Remember, the goal of getting out of your comfort zone is not to become an adrenaline junkie (though honestly, I’d love to rap jump again!), but to try something unfamiliar and challenging that will enhance who you are as a person. For you this could be practicing meditation, negotiating a pay raise, starting a YouTube channel, attending a painting class, learning to drive a manual car, challenging a boss’s decision that you know to be unethical, volunteering for that new role at work, performing on stage, buying that second house, attending a networking event alone, donating more money than is comfortable to a worthy charity, or mentoring a junior colleague. Learn how to grow your comfort zone here.
Attempting these things will require deliberate discipline, and you are not guaranteed success. But, as John F. Kennedy once said, “Nothing worthwhile has ever been accomplished with a guarantee of success.” What is guaranteed is failure 100% of the time if you never try.
So live without regrets. Push your boundaries, allow yourself to live in the risk zone, watch your comfort zone grow as you are empowered personally and professionally. Your places of discomfort will become comfortable, leading to greater confidence, joy, and success in life.