“A ship in a harbour is safe, but that’s not what a ship is built for.”- Unknown
Imagine spending thousands of pounds to build a beautiful boat and then mooring it in a harbour and never taking it out into open water. Pointless right? Now imagine the investment of time, effort and achievement that has gone into making you the person that you are today. Are you maximising that? Are you setting sail into open water? Or are you dwelling in the safety of your comfort zone?
It's an interesting question, and somewhat ironically, it’s one which I was required to pose to myself, when writing this article. Writing is not my trade, it is not something that I would list as one of my key strengths and putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) felt like a pretty big risk. Would I be good enough, could I write something worth reading?
The Comfort Zone is very clearly defined by Lifehacker as a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimises stress and risk. This is something that we should all recognise as being pertinent to at least one area of our life - and this is because the creation of a comfort zone is a necessary choice for much of our daily lives.
But is it healthy in all aspects of life? My own personal perspective is that living every moment of your life in a place of minimal stress, no real challenge and zero risk, is a life wasted. When I try and picture this in my mind, all I see is a grey existence, a boat moored in the safety of the harbour, a lifetime of wasted opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in security, a roof over your head and a steady income - I have never been a candidate for travelling the world with a backpack or jumping off a bridge attached to a piece of elastic - but within that “sensible existence” I still feel that there must be an element of pushing oneself forward, seeing what is possible, dipping a toe into the water and seeing if its warm enough to jump in.
From a leadership perspective, being mindful of the comfort zone is essential. No business can thrive and grow if the workforce is stagnant and uninspired. As leaders, it is our job to recognise those who have the potential to grow, to achieve, and to succeed. But is it possible to inspire others if we ourselves are not inspired?
As a leader, you set the tone. You may be surprised to see that by pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, you also inspire your staff to push themselves a little more. As your new behaviour becomes part of your routine, your comfort zone will continue to expand, taking in more challenges and new skills, and this will further inspire those around you.
However, many of us may still choose to exist in a place of minimal stress, due to relentlessly being told stress is a bad thing. It must be avoided at all costs. It is simply irresponsible for a manager to place their staff under stress…isn’t it?
Well not exactly. Stress is bad for you if you experience too much of it - but there is also such a thing as good stress. Stress that motivates you, gives you a bit of a nudge in the scary direction. It’s known as “Optimal Anxiety” and can be recognised as the slightly uncomfortable state of mind which pushes us to rise to the challenge.
There is a careful balance to strike here - too much anxiety can significantly limit performance and this is clearly illustrated by the Yerkes-Dodson Curve, developed by the psychologists RM Yerkes and JD Dodson. According to Yerks and Dodson, our performance increases with arousal but only up to a certain point. The great news for us as professionals here is that intellectually demanding tasks require a lower level of arousal for optimal performance than tasks that call for stamina or strength.
Specific skill sets are often necessary for someone to move out of their comfort zone, including the ability to adapt and change, and embrace a new environment. For example, many people with a high degree of professional competence fear taking the next step in their career because it involves managing staff. In this scenario, it is essential that the correct support is in place to enable that person to feel confident and able to make that step into management.
Fear of public speaking, fear of increasing expertise, perhaps in a different field and even fear of exposing oneself to feedback can keep someone within the confines of their comfort zone. But in reality, with the correct support, none of these fears are valid reasons to limit our potential.
So what can we learn from all of this? As leaders, I believe that the key message here is to begin with ourselves. Are we really pushing ourselves and evolving as professionals, are we acting in a way that can inspire those around us? Is the support our staff require in order to reach and maintain the state of Optimal Anxiety in place?
As individuals, there is no question that there are benefits to living a full and varied life, of reaching our potential and feeling a sense of achievement at the end of each day. The scale of individual achievement will vary from person to person - for example, I am feeling a huge sense of achievement that you have made it all the way to the end of this article - but the impact is the same.
A person who lives just outside of their comfort zone has reignited their curiosity for what is possible - and that is the key to a life well spent.