What precisely is a comfort zone? Is it “friend or foe?” Most of us would argue it could be either, depending on one’s viewpoint and how it is defined.
By Robert Karro (MRC, Spain) and Ann Hofmeyr (Change Partners, South Africa)
Well then, let’s answer another question. Why do so many people get “Stuck in a rut”during life? Lee Johnson and Albert Koopman in “How to Escape Your Comfort Zones” define a comfort zone as “…a state of passive acceptance of external control”. This sounds rather harsh if one sees a comfort zone as something positive. These authors express the concept of the comfort zone as a conscious or unconscious resignation, accepting the status quo without any further questioning or belief that something new and better can evolve. Hence the feeling of comfort and this creates a wall of stagnation, which stops growth.
On the other hand, the comfort zone can be compared to the foundation of a new building. The foundation has to be well set and solid before the new structure can be erected over it. The comfort zone can then be the foundation from which one successfully embarks on change. In this light it can be defined as an incubation zone for new learning and growth.
Growing up is a process which illustrates the comfort zone idea quite well. Growing up entails testing and trying out new things or ideas. Nothing stops one until the objective is achieved. Does anyone remember the dream of riding a bike and even owning a bike, followed by motorbike and then a car? The thrill of expanding horizons and feeling the freedom of speed spiced with liberty! With each move in life from, say, riding the child’s bike to the adolescent’s motorbike and then driving the adult’s car is breaking out of a comfort zone into a new phase of life. Once acquired, the skill launches a person into a new dimension without losing the knowledge and habits of the earlier stages. While a young adult drives a car from the age of eighteen or nineteen he or she never forgets how to ride a bike or the first feeling of independence derived from it.
So a comfort zone can also be described as a flexible behavioural state in which one can expand and grow until the reason for expansion has been achieved. Whilst in this expansion mode, one’s mind, attitudes and competencies are likely to be more active and more finely tuned. One is in a state of alertness, preparing for the coming spurt of growth by going beyond the current limits, leaving one with an exciting sense of potential success.
Sounds great! So how do we nudge ourselves into doing it?
Let’s understand a little more the “Stuck in a rut” comfort zone. Here lethargy is really lethal. What else is found in this zone? How about different degrees of fear, satisfaction, ego, good and bad habits, knowledge, complacency, self-assuredness, laziness, personal comfort, a pinch of selfishness, lack of self-esteem, uncertainty, unconsciousness.
Many of these aspects hold one back from, as Nike says, “Just do(ing) it!” or as their competition Adidas coined “Impossible is nothing”! President Obama stirred a nation with his version of it: “Yes we can”!
So this type of comfort zone is where the magic definitely doesn’t happen. Most things inside the box are stable, well known, limiting and manageable. Or sometimes simply fear or lack of confidence may paralyze further action. Even an unconscious acceptance of the status quo can hold one back.
The magic happens on taking a step outside the comfort zone into a new area called the “Learning Zone”. This only takes place when one is aware that one has resignedly existed in a comfort zone, accepting the status quo and believing change is not worth the sacrifice. However, if one wants something different, action is required. Remaining in the comfort zone is not going to achieve that difference, therefore a new, first step (an action) has to be taken towards it. This idea is reminiscent of a little child taking his or her first steps.
Parents would call the child as it stumbles towards them on its wobbly legs and then instead of rushing forward to catch the child, the parents would, with outstretched arms and words of encouragement, take a step backwards for the child to take one more step forward, just outside of their comfort zone. This is the learning process and the place in which the magic happens. Here one finds self-confidence, new opportunities, courage, growth, experiences and failures. That’s right. Fear of failure may provoke stagnation within a comfort zone. The fear of failure needs acknowledgment and in order to overcome it one takes action to get out of the box, accepting that failing a few times in the process is the toll to be paid before making the grade.
Winston Churchill defined a successful person with the following words; “A successful person is he who gets up once more after the last fall!” A comfort zone can prevent one from getting up at all; convincing oneself it’s ok not to get up. It holds one back from success.
And this is also life. One step at a time, enlarge the comfort zones, go into the learning zone and then practice, practice and practice until the new endeavour turns into a new habit. The major obstacle in recognising the comfort zone is the comfort derived from itself, the familiarity of it. However, once it is seen for what it is, its hold over us diminishes allowing movement into the learning zone and thence into the magic.
If we step out or stretch out too far and too quickly we don’t go into the learning zone but rather into the panic zone. An example would be someone who is not used to speaking before audiences recognises the need to meet this challenge, but begins by making a speech in front of 500 people! Such a quantum leap would send many of us into a panic! If the first attempt ends in failure, it will only encourage falling back into comfort zone, and will only anchor the pledge with oneself that “I don’t have the ability to make the change”.
There comes a time when people have to finally go into the Learning Zone or even Panic Zone whether they like it or not. It may require a considerable period of resisting change before acknowledging what is happening but finally the pain of change becomes less than the pain of not changing. Suddenly not even fear or doubt will hold one back because there is the knowledge that the change will be worth it.
Options are always in the future, never in the past. There is no risk in the past. Those willing to prepare, relearn and reinvent themselves will take the risks of reaching into the future. Rewards are usually proportional to the risks and the preparation of the task on hand. The choice is always to take them or leave them. To escape one’s comfort zones requires courage and determination and making that active choice. Enjoy the journey, the ups and downs of successes and failures.
One last thought: for optimum results, review actions taken and change them if necessary. Awareness that a particular action may not have been the ideal move is the first step, followed by acknowledgment, without excuses, perhaps in the form of recognising that one’s assessment of the situation was not fully adequate. Only then can a new action or behaviour can be introduced. This is where the crux of the matter lies!