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Andy Molinsky Ph.D.
Andy Molinsky Ph.D.

How to Free Yourself from What You "Should"​ Be Doing

Is compliance stifling your passion? It may be time to make a change.

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Many people are hesitant to step out of their regular roles and routines. The idea of putting yourself in a position to potentially fail can be frightening or stressful. But sometimes what’s keeping you in one spot may not be your own self-interest. In fact, other people’s wishes and the feeling that you “should” stay put may be tamping down your own preferences. What’s holding you back may be compliance, not comfort.

I’ve seen this many times in my research. People have pursued one path in life — influenced by their culture, parents, or sense of what they “should” pursue — that leads them to invest time, money, and skill development in a path that is very hard to escape from.

For example, consider the case of someone I interviewed — we’ll call her Carla. From a young age Carla had an interest in the arts. As a child, she loved to read and write, and as an adult she was a voracious reader and loved contemporary art, theater, and dance. However, her parents told her that she should be taking on a more conventional job, so she considered these interests merely a hobby, something she’d get to if she had the time. In the meantime, she pursued a career in law.

She didn’t hate law, but her heart and soul weren’t fully in it. At some point, despite her many years of schooling and practicing law, she decided to take the leap and try something else—becoming an underground arts entrepreneur.

Her transformation didn’t happen overnight, and it was accompanied by a cocktail of emotion. She felt relief, but also fear, dread, and a bit of guilt. She knew law—it was comfortable, predictable, and, frankly, she was good at it. But the arts were her passion, and over time, as she transitioned, tentatively at first and then head-on into the underground arts scene, her passion took off. Today she’s happy, fulfilled, deeply creative, and living the life she feels she was meant to lead. That feeling of liberation and self-actualization has only grown, six years later, as she continues to catalyze the underground arts scene.

This sense of freedom doesn’t restrict itself to career moves: I have found a similar phenomenon with people I’ve helped adapt to behaviors across cultures, especially those who felt that in their native culture they had to stifle their personality and behavior to conform to the local cultural norms. When they were free from these norms and in a different culture, they could finally be themselves. I see this with some MBA students who weren’t allowed to speak up in class in their native countries because no one wants to contradict the professor—and it’s simply not part of the culture. But in U.S. classrooms they can unleash that side of themselves. They can raise their hands, speak their minds, question authority, and, most of all, be themselves.

Every instance of stepping outside your comfort zone won’t lead to an incredible sense of discovery and liberation. But it may happen when you realize that what you thought was your comfort zone is, in actuality, your compliant zone—where you’ve learned to behave in ways that you were expected to behave, perhaps by your parents, or your extended family, or your culture. Over time, through repetition, and by dutifully fulfilling others’ expectations, you internalize these behaviors as your own, even if they don’t actually reflect who you are.

How can you tell when your comfort zone may actually be your compliant zone?

Pinpoint your area of focus. Identify one specific thing to question, whether it’s something you’re unhappy with or something you want to grow or develop.
Take a quick inventory of your personal values and passions. What are you passionate about? What drives you? What would you love to do, and what do you care about doing if there was nothing getting in your way?

Compare your passions to the activity you’re examining. Can you see your own values and driving passions in this activity somewhere? If you can, it’s probably not compliance—or at least not fully. But if you struggle to find yourself anywhere, you may be in the compliant zone, and it might be time to reassess and consider whether a change is in order.

Of course, there are certain tasks we simply have to do in our jobs and lives in order to fulfill our regular roles and responsibilities. We might not want to network or make company-wide presentations, but we know we have to. We might not want to work all weekend, but we’re compelled by the boss’s orders. On a granular level, compliance is a core element of the working world. But when compliance systematically overrides your personal passion, that’s when it’s critical to examine on a broader level whether you’re living the life you want to lead.

Our habits and routines are hard to break for a reason: They ground us and bring predictability to our lives. But avoiding new situations can hold you back. Stepping outside your comfort zone can help you build new skills and gain confidence. And by identifying and escaping your compliant zone, you can discover your “true” self—the part of you that reflects your authentic passions and interests and leads to a more fulfilling life.

Andy Molinsky is the author of the new book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin Random House).

A version of this article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.

About the Author
Andy Molinsky Ph.D.

Andy Molinsky, Ph.D., is a professor of international management and organizational behavior at Brandeis University and the author of the book Global Dexterity.

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