It happened just a few months ago. The day my granddaughter took her first step.
There she stood, balancing on her two little feet and thinking about how and whether to move them. Then, she did it. She tentatively took her first step, and another, and another.
This is an example of literally stepping outside the comfort zone.
Think back to when you did something for the first time.
Maybe it was yesterday. Maybe you left home to go to university, or made a presentation at a meeting, or started a new job at a different organization. Each time we try something new—where we are unsure what to expect or how it will go—we step outside our comfort zone.
Sometimes this process is easy, but often it’s not. There are many times we’d prefer not to take a risk by trying something new and just stay put. That’s why it’s called the comfort zone.
While cozy, like a warm blanket over us, the comfort zone can inhibit our growth if we stay in it too long. When in it, the comfort zone allows us to feel safe and in control. It’s a place where things come easily and there’s limited risk of failure.
Ah yes. Ease and success.
Judith Bartwick, a former psychology professor at the University of Michigan, describes it this way in her book entitled Danger in the Comfort Zone.
“The comfort zone is a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.”
Where the magic happens
Of course, this begs the question: what is outside the comfort zone? As the saying goes, that’s where the magic happens.
So, if that’s where the magic happens, why do we so often hesitate to take a step towards the magic?
The fear zone
The answer is often fear. It may stem from concerns about what others will think or our own lack of self-confidence. When we’re in the fear zone, we tend to find reasons—excuses—for why we shouldn’t take the next step.
What if it’s too hard or too costly? What if we don’t have enough time or resources?
What if we fail?
Our brains are constantly looking for patterns in order to predict what will happen in a situation. But what happens when there is no previous experience to build on? It can result in discomfort and anxiety. It takes courage to step from the comfort zone into the fear zone.
When we take steps—literally or figuratively—outside our comfort zone and push through the fear zone to do something new, we experience learning and growth. We may learn to deal with challenges, or acquire new skills. As our confidence grows, we extend or enlarge our comfort zone.
Reap the rewards of moving past the fear zone
Once we step out of the comfort zone and move beyond the fear zone, the rewards can be great. Besides acquiring new skills, solving problems, or resourcefully dealing with challenges, the growth zone offers us:
a sense of personal growth and fulfillment.
a greater understanding of our strengths.
promotion of a growth mindset.
fulfillment of our aspirations or goals.
enhanced self-esteem and greater ability to pursue more dreams and goals.
greater resiliency through our ability to handle change and ambiguity with poise.
4 tips for going where the magic happens
Here are four tips to help you when you find yourself in that place—the fear zone.
Be self-aware. Moving out of the comfort zone is not a linear process, so it is helpful to assess and reassess where you are. Sometimes it involves taking small steps; other times it calls for taking bigger steps. What might you miss out on by stepping back into your comfort zone?
Sit with the fear. If you find yourself questioning whether to take the next step or if you’re feeling stuck, consider that fear and growth go hand in hand. Identify your personal signs of fear and be aware of them. What has got you stuck that prevents you from moving forward?
Consider what it will mean for you to go where the magic happens. Imagine developing a greater sense of your strengths, experiencing enhanced self-esteem, or improving your performance. What could you gain from this?
Identify your potential for long-term growth. Think about the possibilities that exist as you continue to develop and grow, the goals you may set for yourself, and the sense of meaning that you will derive from achieving them. How might your ongoing growth transform you as a person?
If you’re feeling stuck and like you just can’t move forward, you may be in the fear zone. Take heart.
It means you have already stepped out of your comfort zone and moved towards where the magic happens.