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How Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Can Boost Your Success

A Q&A with Andy Molinsky, professor of business and psychology at Brandeis University's International Business School and author of “Reach” and “Global Dexterity.”

Thrive Global: Why is it important to get outside your comfort zone?

Andy Molinsky: As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. Without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for personal growth and career advancement.

TG: What does research tell us about the importance of getting beyond your comfort zone?

AM: That it’s hard! In an ideal world, no one would have to stretch beyond their comfort zone to succeed at work, and all the tasks and responsibilities we need to perform would fit perfectly with our personalities. But unfortunately, this isn’t often the case. Conflict-avoidant managers need to embrace conflict—or at least learn to tolerate it. Timid entrepreneurs need to be able to pitch and promote themselves, introverts need to network, self-conscious executives need to deliver speeches and people pleasers need to deliver bad news. People can—and do—learn to stretch outside their comfort zones, but it takes motivation, strategy and courage. The point of my work is to help people on this path.

TG: What’s the most surprising thing you found while researching and writing your book, “Reach?”

AM: It didn’t surprise me that the topic of comfort zones resonated so strongly with people. But what did surprise me was how forthcoming people were in sharing their stories. I spoke with managers, entrepreneurs, doctors, therapists, stay-at-home parents, rabbis, priests even a goat farmer, and nearly everyone had a fascinating story to tell about the challenges they experienced in stepping outside their comfort zones—and how they overcame these challenges.

TG: What are the common things that hold us back and keep us from trying new things?

AM: I’ve found five specific reasons, and I call them psychological roadblocks or barriers. The first is the Authenticity Challenge: It’s the idea that acting outside your comfort zone can feel fake, foreign and false. The second is the Competence Challenge: In addition to feeling inauthentic, you can also feel like you don’t have the ability to be successful in a situation outside your comfort zone. The third roadblock is what I call the Resentment Challenge: Even if people logically know that they need to change their behavior to be effective in a new situation, they may feel resentful or frustrated about having to stretch beyond where they’re comfortable. Roadblock #4 is the Likeability Challenge: One of the greatest worries people feel when stretching outside their comfort zones is whether people will like this new version of themselves.

Finally, Roadblock #5 is the Morality Challenge: In certain instances, people can have legitimate concerns about the morality of the behavior they’re about to perform. Of course, people don’t necessarily experience each of these roadblocks each time they attempt to act outside their comfort zones. However, even one or two roadblocks can be enough to keep people fully ensconced within their comfort zones.

TG: What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to get outside of their comfort zone, either professionally or personally?

AM: In my research, I found that people used three tools to step outside their comfort zones successfully. The first was conviction: the deep sense of purpose that it’s actually worth it to do the hard work entailed in stepping outside your comfort zone (and where conviction came from was very different for each person). The second resource was customization: the ability to tweak or adjust, in an often slight but meaningful way, how you perform a task to make it feel more comfortable and natural. Finally, the third critical resource was clarity: the ability to develop an even-handed, reasonable perspective on the challenges you face; in other words, to not succumb to the distorted and exaggerated thinking so many of us do in very stressful situations.

TG: What are some common myths about stepping outside your comfort zone that we need to stop believing?

AM: One is that all it takes to step outside your comfort zone is taking a leap. This myth is dangerous because it underplays the work that it takes to actually get to the point of taking a leap. The reality is that people don’t spontaneously “leap” outside their comfort zone; rather, that leap is the result of considerable thinking and deliberation. Another myth is that with enough inspiration, anyone can stretch outside their comfort zone. Anyone can do it, but it takes more than inspiration—it takes effort, persistence, strategy and a keen understanding of the challenges.

TG: How can getting outside of your comfort zone make you more successful?

AM: It can allow you to do and achieve things that you might have always wanted to, but were scared of. It can help you discover strengths and interests that you never knew you had. And it can help you start to live the life you may have always wanted to lead, but were afraid to.   

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