The Magic of Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

My family has been in Miami for generations. Like my parents before me I grew up with the sand between my toes, living among the mild climate where I rarely had to don anything heavier than a windbreaker. I was comfortable among the palm trees and the warm humid air…which is precisely why at eighteen I decided to attend college in Maine. Thanks to some stellar SAT scores and a long list of extracurriculars, I had been granted admission to Bowdoin College, and knew although it was over 1,500 miles from the place I had called home all my life it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I still remember how my heart pounded as I said goodbye to my parents and stepped on the plane to Boston, then Portland, and finally off a bus in the small town of Brunswick, where the leaves had already begun turning a color I had only seen in pictures. Moving there required a steep learning curve on multiple levels, from having to purchase snowshoes for the first time to the rigorous curriculum that was far different from the education I’d received prior. However, the benefits and lessons I learned during that time far outweigh any discomfort I felt in treading murky waters. My school taught me how to work hard in high pressure situations, and in my freshman level economics class I developed a passion for entrepreneurship that would eventually inspire me to found my company.

In taking that initial big step out of my comfort zone, I opened myself up to a world of possibilities. Gaining the confidence to test my boundaries is what led me to travel Europe for a year, start my own business while still in law school, and continually make decisions within my business that combine risk with reward. We all have our own comfort zone where we feel familiar, safe, and secure, and in a way we are hardwired to always stay in them. Our brains crave routine, and by doing the same song and dance every day of your life you avoid putting yourself in any unnecessary risk. Unfortunately, by doing so you also prevent yourself from experiencing growth, because within the comfort zone there isn’t much incentive for people to reach new heights of performance. By going about your routine devoid of risk, your progress can plateau, but getting out of your comfort zone from time to time alters your brain’s tolerance to change for the better. Shaking things up every now and again shows your brain that there’s nothing to fear — you’ll be fine on the other side of a little stress, and it will be worth it.

Challenging yourself can help you perform at your peak Leaving your comfort zone is an important – if not universal – factor in personal growth. How can you expect to evolve in your life and career if you only stick to habit and routine? Reaching new heights has to involve the risk of attempting something you may not succeed at, and a little anxiety has actually been found to help you perform at your peak. In a famous experiment conducted over 100 years ago by the psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, they found that stimulation improved performance up to a certain level. Although crossing that level of stress causes a deterioration of performance, somewhere between checked out and freaked out lies an anxiety sweet spot known as the “optimal anxiety.” In this state, you are motivated to succeed yet not so anxious that performance takes a dive, keeping you on your toes and enabling you to juggle multiple tasks while also keeping you on high alert for potential problems. This being said, your comfort zone is not mine, and everybody’s reaction to stress is different. Some overly optimistic people and those with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder may lack enough anxiety to take action, while others such as procrastinating perfectionists need to create anxiety-producing situations in order to get anything done. Regardless of where you fall on the scale, when we challenge ourselves we tend to rise to the occasion.

Taking risks is what helps us grow As children, we’re natural risk-takers, and every single day brings something new to learn and challenges to surmount. Whether it be a new vegetable on your plate or your first day of school, you were constantly faced with the necessity to try new things, and either you succeeded or failed. The fact the matter was that either way you were growing the entire time. But as we get older and it’s no longer the responsibility of our parents to force us out of our comfort zone, we learn to fear failure. Add on top of that the responsibilities that come with adulthood, it can be easy to force yourself to retreat into a comfortable routine to achieve a form of stability. However, this can come at a high cost to our tremendous potential for lifelong growth and transformation. While you may on some level think of “learning” as a phase that happens when you are a child, in fact the learning process never ends, in fact there is always an opportunity to grow, no matter what age you are or situation you are in. Whether you succeed or fail at whatever you’re doing, it will prove to be much more valuable to your growth than if you never took the chance in the first place. However, there is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling, so it is vital to remember that failure isn’t the end of the road. If you want to continue growing as a person you must keep learning, and if you want to keep learning you must keep risking failure. Trying new things can make you more creative On the subject of failure and risk – creativity is inherently risky. When you share your creative work, you open yourself up to vulnerability and possible rejection. However, without taking these risks, you fail to open yourself up fully, lessening your chance for pure creative expression and achievements. While the works of Monet, the founder of French Impressionism, can now be found displayed in some of the world’s largest and most famous museums, his paintings were widely derided when it was first revealed. Both critics and the public alike complained that they were formless, unfinished, and ugly, but Monet persisted in his new movement and eventually garnered success and praise. As someone who spent a year abroad, I can say it was one of the most exhilarating and terrifying years of my life. There is nothing that takes you further out of your comfort zone than a culture shock, and 2011 research found that studying abroad resulted in boosts in students’ creativity. Students who spent a semester abroad in Spain or Senegal scored higher on two different tests of creativity than students who did not study abroad. It is possible that through all of the ways you are challenged to try new things and step out of your comfort zone when studying abroad, you cultivate your openness to experience, one of what’s known in psychology as the “Big Five” personality traits. Openness – which is characterized by qualities like intellectual curiosity, imagination, emotional and fantasy interests, and a drive to explore one’s inner and outer lives – has been shown to be the best predictor of creative achievement.

You’ll discover passions you never knew existed before You may think that the previous example is a moot point for you because you’re not a creative person, but my question to you is: have you actually tried? Hobbies that fill your life with passion are often creative in nature, but too often people are so afraid of trying out new things, they don’t ever attempt to find them. Instead, they trudge through their daily routine, hoping something new will suddenly appear and save them from the monotony. Unfortunately, it is rare for passion and happiness to fall into your lap. You have to seek it out. By leaving your comfort zone, you can take a crack at the things you’ve always wanted to do, and might discover over things you never even knew you might’ve been passionate about before. This doesn’t have to be limited to creativity either. After graduating college, I returned to Florida with the intention of becoming a lawyer like my father and grandfather before me. I still needed income even while pursuing my degree, and even though I could have chosen a position that was more in line with my future career, I took a risk on a job at a commercial real estate company, and within that time found my passion for the ability to shape communities through real estate. Realizing that a career in law was a comfort zone I had set for myself since childhood, I made the decision to risk it all and start my own company instead, something I can gratefully say has worked out well for me. No matter how much you want to believe it, waiting around for something won’t get you anywhere, but the second you leave your comfort zone, you’d be surprised at how things just start falling into place.

The first step is always the hardest Let’s be honest, most of us have probably heard that it’s important to step out of your comfort zone hundreds of times in your life. However, we can often hear things over and over, but it just takes one time for them to sink in and make an impact. It may seem overwhelming to venture into the unknown, but the hardest part about leaving your comfort zone is taking the first step. The more often you do it the more adept you become at handling the initial discomfort, and even small changes each day can accumulate and each build upon the last to create lasting growth. We are all creatures of habit, so even doing something as changing your radio station on your daily commute or ordering from that new restaurant you heard about instead of your usual go-to can bolster your confidence in your ability to take bigger risks in the future.


Connect with Stephen Bittel on his website. — Published on January 5, 2021

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