September 07, 2016
Learning to stretch outside your comfort zone is critical for learning and growing, advancing in your job and career, and achieving your personal and professional goals. But is it always the case that you need to step outside your comfort zone to be successful? Are there situations when it makes sense to stay right where you are?
Having spoken with people from a range of occupations about this exact topic over the past year, my resounding answer is yes. There are times when you actually don’t need to give the speech, make the point, or take the chance. But to figure that out, it’s important to ask yourself a series of questions to assess whether staying inside your comfort zone is sensible or just a rationalization.
Have you prepared well enough? When you’re going to step out of your comfort zone in a situation that’s meaningful, you need to have a good chance for success. Whether it’s speaking up in a meeting or giving a keynote address at a conference, you want to say something worthwhile, and not fumble your words.
You can never fully prepare for something you’ve never done before, but you shouldn’t wing it, either. So the question to ask is whether you’ve prepared enough. Have you studied how to be successful in this situation? Have you watched and learned from others? Have you practiced in less-consequential versions of the situation you’re going to be trying out? Learning to act outside your comfort zone is a skill — one you can get better at with practice. So if the answer to this question is no, you haven’t prepared enough, it might make sense to put the situation on the back burner until you have.
Is the situation in question something you actually care about? There are many situations in life that are outside our comfort zones but that may not be important to us. Such a situation could be giving public speeches — but you know what? Maybe giving speeches isn’t an important part of your job, or your life. Maybe you’re a chemist and have little interest in speaking to a large audience, unless it’s to fellow specialists about your research findings. The point is that not all of us are destined to stretch ourselves in every possible way, or even interested in trying.
Of course, it’s important to realize that “not caring about it” can be a convenient excuse for not trying something new. For example, I argued to myself for years that I didn’t care about writing or speaking for a general audience, that academic writing was my priority. In reality, the problem was more that writing for and communicating with a broader audience was outside my comfort zone, and I was using my lack of interest as an excuse. When you ask yourself whether something is important, make sure you answer honestly.
Is this the right time? You might want to do the behavior or learn the skill in question, but the time just might not be right. You might want to get better at pitching and promoting yourself at networking events, for example, but given your other responsibilities at work, you can’t devote time and effort to that particular task. Or you might want to improve your public speaking skills — maybe you have visions of one day becoming CEO — but given your current position and work responsibilities, you just don’t have the room to dedicate to mastering the craft. If you don’t have the time to fully prepare and follow through, it’s not worth moving forward.
Comfort zones are hard to leave, and for good reason. They’re often places where we feel most secure and natural, and sometimes they are where we can do our best and most fulfilling work. But don’t confuse bravery with sensibility. Stretching your comfort zone when you’re not ready — or don’t need to — can add more stress than skill. In some cases, comfort zones aren’t about settling or mediocrity; they’re just where you need to be right now.