To learn new things, you need to be outside your comfort zone. You need to be uncomfortable and not super confident in what you are doing.
Some people like going to work each day in a job where they are the go-to person for questions and where they are confident in their work.
This seems like a great job, and why would it be? Stress is lower in a job where you’re confident in what you’re doing, and you probably receive regular accolades for a job well done.
But, you may find out that you’re not getting promoted. This makes no sense, as you’re doing a great job. What’s the catch?
Well, the catch is that you’re not learning anything new. You’re not taking risks. Any manager knows that when you promote or hire someone into a new position, there’s a risk the person will fail. It’s hard to learn new things.
So, if you’ve demonstrated that you’re happy doing what you’re doing, you’ve demonstrated that you aren’t a risk taker. To learn new things, you need to be outside your comfort zone. You need to be uncomfortable and not super confident in what you are doing.
This isn’t just a platitude that your seventh-grade math teacher said to try to get you to learn to graph parabolas. It’s a real thing. Andy Molinsky, a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review about this very topic. You don’t learn if you’re comfortable.
Comfort is good, but save it for Netflix evenings and home cooking (that someone else, if possible, cooked). If you want to grow and expand and move up that career ladder, Molinsky gives three steps. Here’s how you do it:
First Be Honest With Yourself
Molinsky asks you to look at yourself and determine why you didn’t take an opportunity to grow and develop. Was it because you truly lacked the time or was it because you were scared? This can play out in seemingly unimportant matters. He writes, ” And when you didn’t confront that coworker who had been undermining you, was it really because you felt he would eventually stop, or was it because you were terrified of conflict? Take an inventory of the excuses you tend to make about avoiding situations outside your comfort zone and ask yourself if they are truly legitimate?”
I receive numerous emails from people asking for help in their day-to-day work lives. I’m happy to help them the best that I can, but so often the answer is only going to be obtained by stepping outside of their comfort zone. For example, if your boss allows your co-workers to come in 20 minutes late, but you get criticized if you clock in at 9:02 a.m., asking me isn’t going to explain why.
I can tell you whether it’s legal or not (it is, except in situations involving race, gender, or some other protected class), and I can tell you if your boss is a jerk (maybe, maybe not), but I can’t solve it for you. You have to go to your boss and say, “Jane, I’ve noticed that Tim, Kate, and Orlando can come in anytime between 9:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., but I need to be here before 9:00 a.m.. I’d like the flexibility they have. What can I do to gain it?”
Most likely you haven’t asked that question because it’s comfortable (in an unpleasant sort of way) not knowing what the real problem is. Your boss may say something simple like, “They are exempt. You’re paid by the hour, so we need to be more exact with your time,” or she may something like, “I can trust Tim, Kate, and Orlando to do their work alone. But, you need more supervision.” Ouch. Nevertheless, you’re better off stepping outside your comfort zone and asking.
Then, Make the Behavior Your Own
Molinsky tells us how you have to take the opportunity to do hard things. You don’t like speaking up in meetings? Plan some comments ahead of time and speak up. You don’t like being the project lead? Ask to be the project lead. You won’t ever get good at it until you do it over and over again. You have to push against that comfort inertia which keeps you in your current state.
Take the Plunge
This is Molinsky’s last step. As you’ve been working on building up the behavior you need to grow, you’ll find it gets easier. Once you’ve started making pre-planned comments in meetings, you can stretch and ask a question that didn’t come up until the meeting started. Then engage in discussion.
This type of behavior will give you strength and courage and allow you to move forward. Just like physical exercise makes you stronger, doing uncomfortable things increases your stamina and you can do more things. Soon enough, you’ll not only feel comfortable speaking up in meetings but be ready to take over the meeting.
And yes, that will be uncomfortable. But that type of uncomfortable is good because it means you’re learning and growing. And that’s what you want for your career.