How to Leave Our Comfort Zones

Taking the leap for personal and professional rewards

Posted Dec 04, 2016

CC0/Pixabay
Source: CC0/Pixabay

We all have heard of the magic that dwells outside our comfort zones. And the growth and the greatness (and the biscuits for those who risk it?) that await us when we leave the walls we built around us. Fortunately, occasions to get a taste of that magic are everywhere—from our daily lives, to our professional settings, to our cross-cultural encounters. Yet, leaving the solace of our comfort zones is not always easy, thanks to the resistance that loyally guards our walls. Then there is the willful fear and the pesky inertia that coax us back to “safety” every time we poke our heads out of our fortresses. But if fulfilling our personal and professional potential is the reward for conquering resistance, then learning to step outside our comfort zones becomes a skill well worth acquiring.

The thought of leaving our comfort zones can bring about a peculiar image: diving (head-first, arms-out, eyes-squinting, face-wincing, with white-knuckled determination as our only parachute) into the very waters that made us erect our walls in the first place. However, as it turns out, it can be a far gentler affair. We could start with dipping our toes. We could find ways to ease out of our comfort zones—ways to wiggle ourselves into the other side. Maybe we could even walk right by the discomfort, fear and inertia, tip our hats to them, and proceed calmly towards the promised biscuits. The trick, it appears, involves authenticity and self-awareness.

So, how do we do it? In his new book, Reach, Andy Molinsky, professor of Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University, discusses just that.

Q: Why is it important to leave our comfort zones?

AM: A lot of us are held back by our fears from doing things that we might otherwise get pleasure out of, or that might advance our careers. By learning to step outside our comfort zones, and being able to take chances and have the courage and skill to do it, we can open a lot of new possibilities and discover things about ourselves that we would not have otherwise discovered. For example, we might learn that we are capable and that what we feared so much could bring us benefits that we would not have anticipated.

Q: How can we know when it’s time to step outside our comfort zones?

AM: It’s a judgment call. Ask yourself: if this situation did not cause you any anxiety at all, is this something that you would still be excited to pursue? If you are honest with yourself and the answer is, “No, I don't really want to do this,” then maybe that’s not something you should stretch for. For example, skydiving is not my thing, so it might not be worth it for me to leave my comfort zone for it. But in other cases—such as speaking up in a meeting if you are timid, delivering bad news when you are a people-pleaser, giving a speech when you are terrified of public speaking—in order for you to grow and develop in your company and your life, you might need to step outside your comfort zone. Even despite it being frightening.

Q: In what ways do we jeopardize our own chances to practice stepping outside our comfort zones?

AM: We are good at avoiding situations and rationalizing: it’s not that important for me to do it. You might decline public speaking opportunities by saying,
“This is not the right time.” Or, instead of networking, you might say, “I’ll just send emails.” There are ways that we unconsciously structure our lives to avoid the moments and tasks that scare us. But those are the things that are probably important for our professional and personal growth.

Q: How can we overcome the resistance that comes with leaving our comfort zones?

AM: One of the first critical factors is to find your source of conviction about why this behavior, this task is important to you. Even if that fear is unconscious, you are still going to have to fight through it to be able to take that leap. Once people take the leap, they sometimes realize that the anticipatory fear is much more than the actual fear. To really understand the meaning behind the conviction is very important. Secondly, I think people underestimate the power that they have to personalize their behavior or how they can approach a situation outside their comfort zone in order to make it more comfortable. This connects with authenticity. You can find a way to put a little piece of yourself into the behavior, like a chef might create fusion cuisine by mixing different ingredients. It’s very unlikely that there is an absolute standard way that you have to act in a situation. There are a lot of different approaches. The trick is to customize and personalize it for yourself that is appropriate and effective in a situation. This enables you to take that leap, but in a way that feels at least partially authentic.

Q: What about stepping outside our comfort zones in cross-cultural settings?

AM: In cross-cultural literature a lot of attention is paid to cultural differences. What I have found is that the challenge on the ground isn't simply about understanding differences. It’s about how to adjust and adapt your behavior in light of these differences, which I call global dexterity. For example, you might understand that in a corporate setting in Germany you need to give more direct feedback than in Japan or the US. But you might feel inauthentic doing that, and it might feel bad, because from your own cultural mindset you might feel you are being rude. In addition, maybe you don't know how to do it. So, as you are stepping outside your comfort zone, you are grappling with these psychological challenges. The question is how you can find a way to still deliver German-style feedback, but in a way that is less inauthentic, perhaps where you feel more competent about yourself. So a combination of cultural intelligence and emotional intelligence is crucial. When adapting to other cultures, consider the human experience. It isn’t simply an analytical exercise in understanding differences. Differences are very important. But that’s a starting point. Once you go beyond the differences, it becomes a human story, and if you don't capture that piece of it, you are missing a lot.

Many thanks to Dr. Andy Molinsky for being generous with his time and insights.

Andy Molinsky is a professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Brandeis University. You can pre-order his new book Reach here.