How can you become more comfortable, and even confident, in all those areas that make you squirm like public speaking, giving negative feedback, or even shmoozing at those dreaded networking parties?
We’ve all encountered opportunities that both delighted and filled us with fear. Fear of doing something new, something unknown, something outside of our comfort zone. And as with anything worthwhile in life, oftentimes the things we fear end up being the most eye-opening and beneficial experiences. So how can we start to push ourselves? And what does it take to be the kind of person who succeeds despite their fears?
Dr. Andy Molinsky is a professor of Psychology and Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University. He's also the author of the book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Build Confidence, and Rise to the Challenge. I recently interviewed Andy for the LEADx Podcast to ask about his tips for stretching beyond our own limitations. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: I hear from a lot of people, “Lean in to your strengths. Don't worry about those things you're not so good at.” How would you respond to that?
Andy Molinsky: I think that's good advice, generally, that you want to play to your strengths. Let's say you're an entrepreneur and you're really good at product, but you're not so good at sales or business development, maybe you partner with someone who's really good at that. I think there are a lot of sensible reasons to play to your strengths.
It's tricky, because I think sometimes we do that in a way to actually avoid growing and developing. You want to make sure it's not about avoidance. I often say to people, when I'm working with them, if they could imagine they had a magic eraser and they could do a thought exercise in their minds. They could take a situation that they're thinking about, like giving a speech, or networking, or making sales, or whatever it might be, and if they could just for a moment erase that anxiety and fear, just for a second, and ask themselves honestly, “Is this something you'd be psyched to be able to do? That you'd be excited to be able to do? You really want to be able to do this for your career?”
If you really reach into your heart there and say, “Yeah, it is,” then I think it's actually a good situation to work on, where you want to try to step outside your comfort zone and not play exclusively to your strengths.
Kruse: Let's say there's a salesperson, she's got “cold call reluctance,” but she does want to be good at it. What are the root causes of this discomfort?
Molinsky: Just for starters, I should say that I interviewed lots of people from different professions. You had executives, managers, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, police officers, rabbis, priests. I even interviewed a goat farmer. There's a really good backstory to that last one.
Anyway, they were across all different kinds of situations, too. Tons of different situations. What I was looking at is, I was trying to find commonalities, even across these very different situations. What I found is―whatever your situation might be―that there were basically five core psychological roadblocks people face when stepping outside their comfort zone.
The first is ‘Authenticity’. The idea that “This isn't me.” I feel like an imposter. This isn't me, trying to do whatever it might be, like cold calling. That's actually hard, when you feel like an imposter, like you feel inauthentic.
Another one is ‘Competence’, or incompetence. The fear, which by the way, could be legitimate. The fear that I can't do this well and people are going to see me as not able to do this well. That's another roadblock people experience.
Another one's ‘Likeability.’ We all want to be liked, but oftentimes, when we're stepping outside our comfort zone into a situation that we're not used to, especially something like cold calling, where you might feel like you're interfering or disrupting someone's day, a lot of people fear that these people will hate us, think we're a jerk, or think we're something worse than a jerk.
Fourth one is ‘Resentment.’ I don't know if you'd feel that, necessarily, with cold calling, but people do feel resentful oftentimes that they have to step outside their comfort zone.
I've talked with lots of introverts who feel like they're swimming upstream, trying to play in a world of extroverts. Our business culture today's quite an extroverted culture. It's sort of biased toward extroverts in some ways. Being self-starters, being assertive, speaking out, speaking up, public speaking. If you're introverted, you might not feel comfortable doing those things. A lot of people I know feel resentful, like, “Why can't the quality of my work matter? Why does it have to be my ability to make chit-chat in the elevator?” That's ‘Resentment.’
Finally, ‘Morality’. I'll give you a good example of a morality challenge, which was a cold call, but a cold call in a specific industry. For the book, Reach, I spoke with a booker. Now, a booker is someone from a TV show, oftentimes a news show, who has to call people to try to get them as guests on the network. Imagine this is a tragedy, an awful situation. There's a family grieving, for whatever situation. This person I spoke with, she had to cold call that family. In fact, she had to beat the other networks to get that family on the air. That was her job, but she felt a morality challenge. She felt that this was way outside her comfort zone. Ultimately, she left. She told me she felt a little bit of her soul was sucked out, every time she did it.
The point is that ‘Authenticity,’ ‘Competence,’ ‘Likeability,’ ‘Resentment,’ ‘Morality’–you don't experience all of them all the time, but any one of them can make it hard to step outside your comfort zone.
Kruse: That leads us to the big question: What do we do about it? What are some resources, or approaches, we could do to get outside our comfort zone?
Molinsky: I wanted to try to figure out what distinguished people who were successful and were able to get that courage, to take the leap, from people who weren't. I found three things that distinguished successful people from unsuccessful people, across all these contexts.
The first was ‘Conviction.’ Having some sort of deep sense of purpose that the pain is worth the gain. That there's something in it for you, not in a superficial way, but in a real, meaningful way. Like, “Why are you doing this? Because it's going to be swimming upstream. It's going to be hard. What's going to enable you to push through?”
For some people, that source of conviction is very professionally oriented, like, “I always wanted to be a manager. I've dreamed of being an entrepreneur. I've dreamed of starting my own business. I've dreamed of being self-sufficient. I just have to do this. I have to be able to learn how to do this. I'm going to push through.”
That would be a professional source of conviction. Sometimes it's personal. I have a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old. I always tell my kids to try to step outside their comfort zones, then I face a situation and if Dad isn't able to step outside his comfort zone, that's pretty lame. That's not the kind of Dad I want to be, honestly. I oftentimes find myself going to a personal source of conviction.
Whatever it is, locating it, finding it, and embracing it is step number one in my book. That's conviction.
Tool number two is ‘Customization.’ I have to say, this is what surprised me most in doing the research for this book. We oftentimes feel helpless stepping outside of comfort zones. Of course, these are hard situations. But you have much more power than you think to tweak or customize your behavior.
Think like a tailor. You go to the store. You buy a suit. You buy a pair of pants. You probably don't wear it off the rack. You probably adjust it, or have a tailor adjust it here or there, to fit you. It's a metaphor. You can do the same thing with your behavior.
In your cold call situation, for example, maybe you script it out. Maybe you script out a few lines. Maybe you have a key phrase that helps you get through it. Maybe you bring a prop. Maybe you have a lucky ring. Maybe you have a lucky hat. Maybe you have a lucky sweatshirt. Maybe you play with the setting. You find a comfortable location where you feel confident and comfortable. Maybe you decide to schedule. You play with time. You do something fun or relaxing before or afterwards.
If it's in person, maybe you're bringing a friend. Maybe you're bringing a colleague. Maybe you do it at a time of day that you feel you're at your best. Maybe you start with low-hanging fruit, people that you think will probably be most receptive to your message, to have a small win, build your confidence, and then move from there.
My point is that there's no one way of doing this. You can find a way to make it your own. My guess, from what I have learned, is that you can customize in a way that makes it just that little bit easier and more comfortable to take the leap.
So you've got ‘Conviction’ and ‘Customization.’ The last is ‘Clarity.’ Clarity is the idea that oftentimes when we're in situations outside our comfort zones, we do what psychologists call ‘catastrophizing.’ We think of the absolute worst possible case. “I'm going to give that speech. I'm going to make that cold call. I'll be a complete flop. The person will hang up at me, they'll scream at me. I'll faint onstage.”
I think anxiety and fear pulls us in that direction. Clarity is the ability to claim that more realistic, normalized middle ground. To be able to say to yourself, “You know what? It might not be perfect, but it probably won't be this disaster doomsday scenario. Probably somewhere in the middle. I'm guessing I'll learn a lot and the next time around, I'll get even better.”
It's finding a way to not have your confidence sway like the open seas and to have more of a psychological anchor to keep you level. That's what clarity is.
Kruse: The person who was the booker of these news catastrophes. Which of the three C's did she use?
Molinsky: I think, early on, for her, the conviction is that she wanted to make it in her career. If this is a stepping stone to higher things that are more meaningful to her, that's fine. She'll just do it, she'll grit her teeth and do it. I think she also said, “Someone's going to get these people on air, it might as well be us. It might as well be me, by the way, because I'm compassionate. When I ultimately talk to this family, I will talk with them with compassion. The people here at our network are also compassionate, much more so than those other guys.”
I heard that a lot, actually, when I was interviewing police officers, as well. I interviewed them. I also did a ride along with police officers. We performed 20 evictions one day in a pretty tough part of a major metropolitan city. I had the bulletproof vest on and everything. I remember them saying that there's a source of conviction for them that, you know, “better me than someone else,” because I know how to do this with dignity. It was true. I was watching these police officers, these particular people. They were. At least in my mind. Of course, I can't step into the shoes of the person being evicted, but I felt, as an outside observer, they were doing it with dignity.
Ultimately, this booker left her job. It was too much. There's a burnout factor. I think that's what she, at least initially, relied upon.
Kruse: I like to challenge our listeners to get just a little bit better every single day. Based on your work, is there something you can challenge us to do today?
Molinsky: What I would say is do a thought exercise. Take five minutes to actually imagine yourself stepping outside your comfort zone in a situation that's meaningful for you, in a situation where you would like to grow and improve. Think to yourself, what are the worries that are holding you back? In this thought exercise, can you imagine coping with those worries? Can you imagine using some of what we talked about already today, to try to make it just a little bit easier for you?
What I find is that sometimes the very first step in stepping outside our comfort zone is actually imagination. It's not action. It's actually in our heads, contemplating the possibilities. I think that's a reasonable call to action you can do anywhere, any time, right now.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.