The Comfort Zone: ‘Fear is more likely to kill my dreams than failure ever will.
I’d like you to picture the following scenario: you’re about to give a speech to a room full of people, and large crowds terrify you. Your heart’s racing, your palms are sweaty and truth be told, all you can think about is why you agreed to do this speech in the first place.
As it turns out, public speaking is regarded as the number one fear for most people, above everything else. I used to be one of those people with sweaty palms and my pulse hammering. Yep...that used to be me. I hated public speaking. It was one of my biggest fears and it was very much out of my comfort zone.
Comedian and actor Jerry Seinfeld once said, ‘According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.’
We all have our own personal fears, whether it’s a fear of public speaking, heights, spiders, the list goes on. In some cases, fear can be a valuable feeling. It can keep us safe. It can encourage caution when caution is necessary. But it can also be very limiting and can quickly allow the world around us to shrink if we give into it too often. Not everything we’re afraid of deserves fear or caution, and sometimes moments of bravery are necessary to transform and change us as individuals, whether that’s in our career or in our personal life.
When people used to say to me, ’Christina, step out of your comfort zone’, I would tend to roll my eyes and remember those cheesy corporate ‘where the magic happens’ posters, thinking ‘step out, into what?!’. The whole idea of the comfort zone was far too abstract for my liking. But things changed when I came across this diagram based on Tom Senninger's learning model :
Seeing the comfort zone on paper helped me to visualise what stepping out of it really meant. Having uncovered the beauty of the Learning Zone, it all started to come together and make sense. Learning and facing challenges versus being comfortable allowed me to take braver steps towards my full potential – and not just within my career, in my life too.
But, of course, being brave enough to step out of your own comfort zone isn't all that easy, as it’s much easier to remain in the boundaries of what we are familiar with. As creatures of comfort, when we are at ease and in our natural neutral state, life feels nice and easy and we tend to revel in the lack of stress. This is particularly true when life throws us curve balls. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing bad about being in this comfortable, neutral state - however if we let ourselves get too comfortable and start holding back instead of challenging ourselves, are we risking the danger of major complacency and allowing the world around us to shrink? What brings us comfort can sometimes be in exact opposition to what might enable us to accomplish our goals and what we really would like from this life, especially in this context of change and growth.
Change in many situations is a necessity. But as humans we’re not always accommodating to change. Why? Because change is usually outside of our comfort zone since it represents unfamiliar territory. We all know that everything in life is constantly changing and the more we become entrenched in our comfort zones the more difficult change becomes. Therefore being able to embrace change takes ever-more effort, and can only be done when one is truly, wholeheartedly motivated to do so.
So here’s some food for thought. What if altered our perceptions towards comfort and change and transposed these attitudes into opportunities to learn, grow and improve for the better, even if it was through making mistakes? If we allowed ourselves to build knowledge and resilience towards things that pull us back from achieving our true potential, could we be a better version of ourselves? What if we spent more and more time out of our comfort zone and instead existed inside the ‘Learning Zone’?
Learning to embrace risk, fear and knocking self doubt on the head
October 2013 was a major turning point for me in my career, when I not only learnt what stepping out of my comfort zone really meant, but I also broke out of a cycle of self-neglect which was holding me back - call it the ‘I feel like I am faking it and not good enough’ syndrome or, as many label it, imposter syndrome.
Long story short, I was considering applying for a management position for a startup in London, which was the perfect role and company for me at the time. After a number of ‘Angel vs Devil’ moments (should I, shouldn’t I? Can I? I probably shouldn’t), I decided to apply for the position, even though I thought I was massively punching above my weight.
BEST. DECISION. EVER!
After three successful years at the company, I learnt new skills, tackled really challenging problems (internally and externally) and on some occasions burnt myself out by working too much. I became braver, tougher, learnt the importance of pragmatism and how to think on my feet and best of all, I learnt how to take a punch, especially when things failed. I also learnt the beauty of true ownership and accountability. If there was ever a time in my career, where personal learning and growth was knocked out of the park and overcoming self-doubt was knocked over the head, this was it. As a result, avoiding risk became embracing risk, fear of failure became accepting failure and my mindset started to shift from ‘I’m feel like I am faking it’ to ‘I am damn capable’.
Stepping into the Learning Zone
Learning to explores the edge of our abilities and limits can only be driven by one person - you. For me this is the universal factor for personal growth. However, to be able to step into your ‘Learning Zone’ there is a key attribute, which we as humans rely on to ensure that we don’t go too far beyond the ‘Learning Zone’ into the ‘Danger Zone’ (or as some might call it the ‘Panic Zone’). And that is self awareness.
Looking back, if I were to ask myself what it was that enabled me to make the decision to apply for the position at the startup to begin with, especially since self-doubt was dragging me down, it was my own self awareness. Having practiced introspection, always sense-checking my strengths, weaknesses and capabilities, deep down, I knew I was capable. Unfortunately in this case, my mind was playing tricks on me.
Self-awareness is one of the most under-utilised practices in personal human development. When we are self-aware we are honest about ourselves, our personality, strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, motivations, emotions, the works! We understand other people, how they perceive us, and our own attitude and responses towards others.
Learning about ourselves is pretty much asking us to hold up a mirror and to take a look at who we are and that takes courage and honesty. We are not the best at recognising our own flaws and strengths for that matter, since by default our vision and brain power is usually focusing on our external surroundings. So without self awareness, can we really take that brave step out of our comfort zone and into the Learning Zone?
Finding your own courage and avoiding the danger zone
The hardest part about stepping into our ‘Learning Zones’ is being brave enough to take that crucial first step, which takes courage, honesty and know how. I want to share with you my own personal tips from my own experiences, which hopefully can help encourage you to step out of your comfort zone.
1. Introspection is ALWAYS a good idea and a great starting point.
We’ve just talked about how important self-awareness is. So understanding where our starting point is, especially when it comes to changing habits and behaviours, is key. Start there. Write down your strengths, weaknesses, areas for improvement, whether the focus is on your career or personal life. Be honest with yourself. You start to see patterns, thoughts, and ambitions emerge. Write them all down! A tip here, you might want to also do this exercise with someone else. Remember, you have two personalities, the external facing and the internal facing, so see how others describe you - this is just as important.
2. Avoid taking the easy way out and build courage to try new things.
Every time we make decisions, one of those choices is usually the safe option and the other choice is the risky option. Usually, it’s the risky option that enables us to learn and grow. A great way to test the waters is by beginning with small changes that don’t present any real threat. If you are not one for eating a variety of foods, just once try choosing something new off the menu at your local breakfast cafe. You could be working in a team, where a teammate intimidates you; try walking up to them and having a conversation instead of instant messaging them or sending an email. Try rewarding yourself when you have tried something new - for me it’s buying fresh coffee beans or having lunch at one of my favourite spots in London. Small steps can lead to significant behavioural changes and habit formation.
3. Build a ‘ball pool’ around you and let yourself safely fail.
With courage and trying new things comes a certain level of risk, and when we are brave enough to take these risks, having a safe-to-fail environment can be a great training ground for when things might not go according to plan. A safe-to-fail environment for me is like one of those funky free-jumping trampoline parks. We have a sudden urge to jump so high, but are not scared to land out of the trampoline boundaries because it’s safe as there’s a pool of soft balls to break your fall. When we fall it doesn’t really hurt, but it’s not the most comfortable landing either. So when you are thinking about trying something new, think about whether you’re setting yourself up for a bad fall and possibly think twice. Avoid thinking ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ and think more ‘I should! However, if it goes wrong, where’s my landing pad?’).
4. Timing has its place, don’t rush and be aware of external factors.
I think there is a misconception when people say ‘there is no right time, now is the right time’. Every now and then, I admit, I subscribe to this notion. However, for me it’s about finding a balance. Premature steps towards change, especially without a safe-to-fail environment, can lead to irreversible consequences and traumatic experiences and you can very quickly find yourself in the ‘Danger Zone’. I’m sure we’ve all experienced a scenario where you or someone else might say, ‘I’m sorry I got angry, you just caught me at a really bad time’. Factoring in timing is important, especially when we are about to make choices that affect us directly. So as much as self-awareness and our abilities are important, external awareness should also be taken into account. You might be ready to take the leap, but your surroundings might not be. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take the leap, just make sure you have a minimum numbers of your ducks in a row.
5. Don’t go at it alone, soundboard ideas and learn to collaborate.
If you want to become better at something, it’s probably a good idea to start hanging out with the people who are doing what you want to do and emulating their ideas and thoughts. Almost inevitably, their influence will start to have an effect on your behaviour. A few ways to go about this are through social media channels such as online Facebook groups and forums, Slack - which is great source for connecting with external communities of practice and working groups, local meetups, conferences – and a whole range of other ways. My personal favourite way to soundboard ideas has been through having a mentor. I have some great conversations with my mentor, both work- and life-related. New ideas and realisations emerge through valuable and insightful discussions. On the flip side, I am also a mentor myself, and I am learning how to coach and up-skill others. So: remember to connect, converse and collaborate!
6. Make sure you recognise your improvements by acknowledging successes!
How many times during the day, month or year do we look back at things we have achieved and say to ourselves ‘good on ya!’ or ‘well done!’? Probably not as much as we should, and in some cases never. It’s easy to forget, right? We have a million things going on in our lives. But it’s so incredibly important for building our self-awareness to acknowledge our own successes. When I run retrospectives with my teams at work, I always say to them ‘consistently improving things that haven’t worked so well is hard, but acknowledging success and continuing what is already working is harder’. We should never stop introspecting and learning about who we are, what motivates us and how we can improve, but we should also stop and celebrate when we have achieved our goals.
So similar to our starting point, where we listed our strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement, take a look back at that list from time to time and see what has changed. I personally do this on a monthly basis, because I find that that time frame works for me and my goals. But it could be shorter or longer for you. A tip to bear in mind: don’t have lengthy intervals between periods of reflection, because the sooner you try new things and feedback to yourself, the sooner you can make better decisions in the future.
Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
At some point in our lives, we all say to ourselves ‘I have no idea what I'm doing,’ or ‘I don’t know how to deal with this situation.’ It’s important that we create habits that stop us from running away from this kind of discomfort. Sure, it’s scary, but imagine the satisfaction when you’ve experienced a situation you consider terrifying. It actually may not be that bad of an experience. I suppose, on the other hand it could be. In the latter case, I always find there are two ways to approach and accept this kind of outcome:
Personal confirmation: At least you will know for sure you never want to do that thing again and avoid the question ‘what if?’ lurking inside your head for hours and hours on end.
New learnings: There are always ways to improve how you approach situations, so learn from every outcome and experience.
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable takes practice, resilience and perseverance. TED speaker Luvvie Ajayi said something that really resonated with me during her talk Get Comfortable with being uncomfortable: ‘Keeping things the way they are is comfortable, keeping quiet and not speaking up is comfortable. All comfort ever really does is maintain the status quo.’
There are many who will read this post and think, ‘but I like being comfortable.’ If being comfortable is a conscious decision and that works for you, then who am I to judge? But if it’s fear, especially fear of failure, that’s stopping you from taking a leap of faith and becoming the best you that you can be, remember that fear is more likely to kill your dreams than failure ever will. Be self-aware, step out of your comfort zone and start to expand the world around you.