Are You Playing Outside Your Comfort Zone?

Long time, no see. Holy cow, has it really been 7+ months since my last blog post?

So, what exactly have I been doing? Well, I’ll tell you: I’ve been running around outside my comfort zone. That’s what I’ve been doing.

You see, one of my goals for this year was to create my first online course. I thought I would experiment with something relatively small – you know, like a little course on managing email, or something like that.

But my wish showed up at my door as a bigger opportunity. In March, a corporate client asked if I could provide one of my flagship courses – Workflow Mastery – in an online format for their staff. I said, “Yes!” What could be better than having a built-in audience for my first online course? And so began my venture outside the comfort zone.

Keep in mind that this is a course that I’ve delivered to, by now, thousands of professionals, and refined over the years. It’s not like I had to design a new training. I know the content like the back of my hand. So, I reasoned, it would take me about 2 weeks to record videos and upload them. I mean, honestly, how hard could that be? 

But from here, standing on the finished side of the project, my naiveté seems charming, if not comical. Because the bald truth is that it actually took me a little over three months. 

This project required me to do things I have never done before. I had to script the training word for word – something I don’t do for my in-person courses. I had to find the right visuals, find the right tools and technology – and teach myself how to use them. The Google and I became inseparable. I was looking up how to put together the lights I bought, how to turn my iPhone into a teleprompter, and why one of the videos wasn’t displaying the time. And I had to do voice-overs. You know, record my voice.

The voice-over thing is no joke. It took a whole day and often multiple days to do an audio recording for a 15-minute video. I would listen to the recording of my voice and hit that record button again, and again, and again. Let’s just say my perfectionism went a little wild outside the comfort zone.  

And everything else in life basically paused. For three months. This new thing took all of my waking attention. There were days I thought I would: Never. Finish. But I did. And now, I’m resting up to go back out there. I’ll be headed back outside the comfort zone to learn how in the world to market it to a broader audience.

I share this with you because I have been thinking a lot about the comfort zone, and why getting outside of it is vital. Even though it’s, well, you know, uncomfortable. 

 

I’m in the process of expanding my business. This effort to go beyond the natural limits of my current business requires me to step out of what I’m confident in – into the unknown. To try new things. To learn. To push my skills. To expand my reach - and my exposure. I can say with confidence that it is uncertain, and yes, uncomfortable.

In 2009, accomplished writer, producer, and storyteller Ira Glass gave an interview on the creative process. Ira speaks about how when you are a beginner at something, there is this gap between your taste and your work. Ira says,

“For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.”

The antidote to this: do a lot of work. Ira says,

“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Ira captures what it’s like to be smack dab outside the comfort zone. It can feel tenuous, vulnerable, humbling, maybe daunting or even scary. And the impulse to retreat back into what you know - the familiar, the comfortable - is real.

So, if it's so uncomfortable, why in the world do you want to go there?

The answer is simple: It is outside the comfort zone that you find the zone of learning. And learning fuels performance. 

Take a look at world-class athletes. What makes them great? What keeps them competing? They're dedicated to pushing the limits of their abilities. They're always working on their game - outside the comfort zone.

I am a big fan of tennis player Rafa Nadal. He is a consummate competitor, who is achieving at the highest levels of the sport beyond what many had imagined. Commentators often mention his workman-like approach both on game day and in practice.

Many tennis players get known for their particular “weapons” as the commentators like to call them. Maybe it’s their serve, their footwork, their fitness, or their forehand winner. It would be easy to rely on these dominating skills.

But those who endure at the top of the game constantly push their learning edge. They don't neglect the part of their game that is weaker. They work on it. And the only place to work on that is outside the comfort zone, in the place where you haven’t yet reached your potential, where you are not as good as you one day will be.

Nadal has worked this way since he was a kid. Nadal’s coach and uncle famously trained right-handed Nadal to be a left-handed player. That’s pretty much outside the comfort zone.

What does an elite athlete have to do with the rest of us? They amplify for us the mechanics of performance.

 

Back to my story. Yes, I could rely on how I’ve always done things, what has worked for me in my business. I could comfortably coast. But at some point that game plan won’t keep pace with the realities of the marketplace, or my own drive to have an impact.

To keep pace professionally, particularly in today’s rapid-fire world, to continue to make the contribution you want to make, you have to try out new things. You have to perpetually push the edges of your knowledge, technique, and craft. And when you start, you won’t be as good as your vision. And that can be uncomfortable.

As President John F. Kennedy said,

“There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”

 

Now, don't get me wrong: playing outside the comfort zone isn’t all discomfort and difficulty.

In fact, playing outside the comfort zone can be downright invigorating. It can add a spark of vitality and engagement. Think of children playing. Everything for a toddler is outside the comfort zone – and they love it! They are enthralled, curious, interested. They aren’t bored – they are all in!

Playing outside the comfort zone brings those same benefits to adults. The learning and discovery that goes on outside the comfort zone energizes. You become absorbed and alert. And this has the residual effect of boosting overall performance – even to those skills inside your comfort zone.  When you find ways to dabble outside the comfort zone, you kill the complacency that degrades performance. 

When you find ways to dabble outside the comfort zone, you kill the complacency that degrades performance. 

Yes, creating my first online course brought the vulnerability that goes with being a beginner, climbing slowly up a steep learning curve, and exposing fledgling skills. At the same time, it was enormously stimulating, interesting, and engaging. And, I connected to the confidence of my courage – the courage to try my hand at something new, to work at creating something of value, even if I hadn’t yet mastered all the technical skills. I discovered new aptitudes and interests. Playing outside the comfort zone is both humbling and confidence building.

Another benefit of venturing outside the comfort zone? You get a front-row seat to progress. When you witness even the most modest improvement or result, you tap into your own efficacy. That sense of efficacy - the awareness that your actions have impact - stimulates the neurochemistry of motivation. Motivation is not a random feeling. It is the biochemistry of action. Playing outside the comfort zone is highly motivating.

I don’t want to give the comfort zone a bad rap.

Truth is, many of the things that were once outside your comfort zone are now in it! You just don’t want to be held hostage to the comfort zone. You don’t want to become so enamored with being comfortable that you start to shrink in the face of new opportunities, challenges, and callings. One way to think about it is to find your “learning edge” – a place that is buoyed by your strengths and reaches just beyond. The comfort zone can give you the confidence and energy to venture outside it.

You don’t want to become so enamored with being comfortable that you start to shrink in the face of new opportunities, challenges, and callings.

 

What are some telltale signs that you are playing outside the comfort zone?

  • You are figuring out how to do something.
  • You are in a new environment, community, or culture.
  • You feel out of your element.
  • You are practicing a skill you have not yet mastered.
  • You experience the flutter of anticipation, excitement, or nerves at the prospect of doing something.
  • You experience twinges (or attacks) of self-doubt or that pesky imposter syndrome.
  • You take a leap and are not sure how, or if, it will turn out.

What are some hints that maybe it’s time to get out there and play outside the comfort zone? 

  • You feel bored or not engaged in your work and/or personal life.
  • You question whether you are in the right job.
  • You feel stuck in some way.
  • There is something you wish to do, but fear stops you.
  • You feel you are on autopilot or "dialing it in."
  • You are dissatisfied or feel something is missing.
  • You lack that spark of curiosity, interest, or exploration.
  • You sense you are not living up to your potential or contributing the way you want to.

 

Life has a way of inviting us or compelling us to learn, change, adapt, adjust, grow. Whether you decide to venture outside the comfort zone or simply find yourself there unexpectedly, it's important to have strategies for playing out there. 

There are two main approaches to playing outside the comfort zone. 

Incremental

In general, the incremental approach is a sustainable way to play outside the comfort zone. You add a little learning or exploration to business-as-usual. What are you interested in learning more about? What do you want to do more of? What are you resisting but want to be able to do? What small steps can you take to play outside the comfort zone?

Immersive

From time to time, you may be called or inspired to a more immersive approach. This is what I did with the online course. A meditation retreat or traveling to a country you’ve never been to might be an immersive approach to playing outside of your comfort zone.

Typically, a new job is in this immersive category as you may be on a learning curve of new responsibilities or a new environment. A crisis or tragedy may thrust you outside the comfort zone. 

 

How can you make playing outside the comfort zone a little more comfortable?

1. ReCall Your Competence and accomplishment.

Keep a running list of your skills and accomplishments - professional and personal. When you are in the throes of vulnerability outside the comfort zone, consult this list to tap into the confidence-boosting power of what you have achieved in the past. This is not your first rodeo. Really, it's not. And you have skills and accomplishments to prove it.

2. Remember WHY.

Purpose motivates. Aspiration fuels effort. What do you want to achieve and why does it matter? When you are connected to the bigger goal - whether it is to make a greater impact, express yourself creatively, push your capability, overcome a fear, serve better, pursue an interest - you access the peace of perspective. The nagging anxieties of being a novice or newbie abate when you turn your attention to the bigger picture. 

3. Find a tribe.

Often being outside the comfort zone, by choice or by "force," can feel isolating. Go find people who have been there, done that (or are there, doing that). What you will find is: you are not alone. You are not the first to discover the jitters outside the comfort zone. 

When I decided it was high time to expand my business, I started listening to business podcasts and found my tribe. Every day when I go for a run, walk, or drive, I listen to a podcast episode of a business owner talking about what they have learned - the good, the bad, and the ugly. I've learned practical tips, yes. But even more valuable: I've been inspired by their real-life stories of mistakes, confusion, failures, successes, and figuring their way forward. This innocuous habit of listening to podcast interviews has had a big return: I have realized that I am not alone. Others have been exactly where I am and lived to tell the tale. And that is very comforting when you are outside the comfort zone.

You can find a tribe anywhere. It can be a group of friends who encourage you. It can be others who are or have been in your situation. Or it can be a bunch of people you have never met on podcasts. 

4. Protect Your Play.

Playing outside the comfort zone is vulnerable by nature. Be smart about when and with whom you share your efforts and findings. If you expose your efforts to the opinion of too many too soon, it may be unduly scorching. I am not suggesting that you hide out. Simply discern the people and the pacing that will be most supportive of your experiments outside the comfort zone. 

5. Know Yourself, Coach Yourself.

Sometimes you need a pep talk when you're playing outside the comfort zone. Get in the habit of encouraging yourself - of giving yourself the courage - to play outside the comfort zone. Get to know your go-to reactions outside the comfort zone. Do you go to self-doubt? Do you catastrophize? Do you hone in on fear or anxiety? Do you play the victim? Do you quit? 

Once you know yourself, you can coach yourself. Reframe the situation, remind yourself that things take time, redirect your attention, reset your expectations. Coaching yourself is not about being hard on yourself. If you want a quick way to quit, be hard on yourself. Instead, be kind to yourself. Acknowledge the best in yourself. Just don't be bamboozled by your avoidance techniques. 

6. Take Care.

It takes a lot of energy to run around outside the comfort zone. And, when you are outside the comfort zone, it's easy to neglect yourself. So take care. Let me be your mother for a moment: Get sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Outside the comfort zone can be all-consuming - particularly if you go the immersive route. Care for yourself. Your nervous system will thank you. Remember, your brain exists in a body. Care for it so that you have the energy to play well outside the comfort zone. 

7. Chart Progress.

Devise a way to chart progress outside the comfort zone. Even the slightest progress can keep us in the game. And keep in mind that staying with something when you haven't yet seen progress - is progress. Sticktoitiveness is a major accomplishment. Seriously. Don't underestimate it.

When you chart progress, you may need to simultaneously adjust expectations. As I said, creating the online course took me much longer than I expected. I had to keep adjusting my focus from how slow it was going to the incremental progress I was making each day. That kept me motivated to stay in the game. 

 

I love this quote from the poem, The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver:

"...Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"

To me this is the most compelling reason to play outside the comfort zone: to discover and extract the best of life and the best of yourself. The long-term rewards of playing outside your comfort zone are many, including more fulfillment, happiness, confidence, competence, and contribution.

Playing outside your comfort zone need not be fancy or dramatic. Just dabble. Maybe it's a class here or a conversation there. Maybe it's reaching out to someone. Maybe it's raising your hand for the project at work. Maybe it's learning to sing or to paint or to dance for no good reason - at your advanced age. Maybe it's speaking up. Maybe it's remaining silent. Maybe it's going for the job. Maybe it's saying you were wrong. Maybe it's making something. Maybe it's giving something. 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do to play outside your comfort zone?