Growth and Comfort: How Uncomfortable Are You Willing to Be?

- February 9, 2012

"Dancing on the edge of uncertainty..."

While watching Roger Federer lose his recent Australian Open semifinal to Raphael Nadal, I was struck by his seeming unwillingness to play the obvious strategy to have the best chance at winning. (The current world number one, Novak Djokovic, showed Federer and the world a successful way to do it last year.)

After the match was over, I thought about how Roger played it. Did he feel by not playing his usual game, there was no joy in playing? Or, was he unwilling to consistently leave his comfort zone, to go into uncharted territory and perhaps find victory there?

I will never know what was going on in Roger Federer's head. And, it is hard to criticize him due to the level of success he has achieved in his professional life. Thinking about him led me to think about something we all face: examining what it will take to go beyond our current level of success, and how willing we are to do what it takes to get there.

It is all too easy to repeat what, for the most part, is working. Sometimes, repeating what works is fine. Remember the idiom, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? That is great advice for a mechanical device. But when it comes to personal growth, staying within the boundaries of "what works" when there is room for improvement is a sure way to stagnation.

Growth requires us to test the boundaries of what is known. It takes willingness to get out of our comfort zone, to look awkward, to make mistakes and by definition, to be uncomfortable and not run away from the discomfort.

One wonderful thing about staying in the discomfort zone is the chance to explore who we think we are. Instead of running on autopilot, being uncomfortable in a new situation allows us to question self-imposed beliefs and limits. We might discover aspects of ourselves that delight and surprise us as we dance on the edge of certainty.

When I was in graduate school, I needed to come up with a significant amount of money to pay my taxes. (How I got in that situation is another story!) The only option I found was a summer job as a quality assurance (QA) engineer for a local high-profile software company. At the time, I was a software developer, but I had no experience in the kind of code I needed to write to be successful in this QA job. I figured I could learn this particular coding language in a week.

By luck, I had studied the exact topic that was on the test I took to get the job. I was hired, but I was lost on my first day. I had no idea how to do what they had hired me to do! A fellow consultant noticed my plight and did what he could to coach me, but it wasn't enough. As the days wore on and my confidence sank, I knew I had little time to figure this job out. The prospect of getting fired and failing to pay my taxes filled me with shame.

I strained with everything I had to learn the language by the end of the week. The weekend came, and I had not succeeded. The feeling of dread in my gut that Friday was sickening. The next work day was July 4, so the office was closed. Even though the situation looked bleak, I had no other options to turn to quickly to make a large sum of money. With little confidence, I went into the empty office building along the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass. to give it one last go. As I stared at the computer screen, suddenly everything fell into place. The euphoria and gratitude I experienced in that moment is hard to describe. Even though I did not think I would succeed, my perseverance paid off. I learned a lot about what I was capable of doing under pressure. I have been able to draw on that strength ever since.

As I discovered, there is exhilaration and terror wrapped up in pushing your boundaries. I am eternally grateful that the story I shared had a happy ending. Regardless of success or failure, you can grow when you are willing to go beyond what you know and what is comfortable.

I'd love to hear your experiences of going beyond your comfort zone. I trust that no matter what the result, you learned invaluable lessons that served you well in the years that followed.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post.