Andy: Sure. My new book, Reach, is about acting outside your comfort zone. In whatever profession we’re in, we all face situations that are outside our comfort zones, that we often avoid. Things like making small talk with people you don’t know, or speaking up when you’re fairly reticent, or pitching and promoting yourself if you’re modest, or delivering bad news when you’re a people-pleaser. We can avoid these situations or we can procrastinate, but to achieve our goals, these everyday acts of courage are critical.
Isaac: I’m particularly interested in this first piece of building up the courage, getting to the mental place to take that step [outside the comfort zone].
Andy: I’ve studied and spoken with people from many different professions and walks of life. These are managers, executives, and entrepreneurs. They’re doctors, police officers, rabbis, priests, even a goat farmer. I wanted to see if I could come up with some generalizations that apply across many different contexts. What I found was a couple of things.
[Regarding] the “Why is it so hard?” piece… I found that there are five different psychological roadblocks we face: we are worried that [by] acting outside our comfort zone, we’ll feel inauthentic. “This doesn’t feel like me.”
We’re worried about our likeability, that “People won’t like this version of me.” We’re worried about our competence, which is on display when you’re a fish out of water doing something that’s outside your comfort zone. You worry that you’ll fall flat on your face, that others will see that.
Some people feel resentful. “Why do I have to do this? Why does this matter?” I talk to a lot of introverts who say, “Why can’t the quality of my work stand for itself? Why do I have to make chit chat, and why does that enable me to progress at the firm?”
Then, morality. Some people, in certain circumstances, face a morality barrier, in the sense that acting outside their comfort zone is against their ethics.
Isaac: Presumably, there’s a role for leaders and managers to improve the performance of their team by encouraging them to step outside their comfort zone.
Andy: Absolutely. Across all these cases, I saw that successful people were doing three different things.
The first was conviction. This is either something that people are able to come to on their own, or that managers or leaders could help instill in people that they work with. [Let’s say] you’re going off to deliver bad news. You’re going off to present, or to make small talk, or to be assertive when you’re not an assertive person. You need to have conviction, that deep sense of purpose, to give yourself permission to act against the grain of your personality. When every bone in your body is saying, “No, no, no. I can’t do this,” you need that conviction.
That comes from different places for different people. It could be a very professionally-oriented conviction that you’ve always wanted to be a leader. You’ve always wanted to progress up to some role, and you’ve got to do these things to achieve that goal. For other people, it’s very personal. For example, I have two kids, and when I’m scared to do something, I think to myself, “I tell my kids that you need to be brave. Dad’s got to step up here.”
Isaac: That’s fantastic. I love that you mention your kids because, in writing my book and thinking about leadership, there were so many times [when I had] this instinct to say, “Well, this is a business issue,” or, “This is a personal issue.” The way I look at it now, it’s really all the same. I like the idea of thinking about the people close to you, living the example you want to set for them. [Because whatever we’re doing,] we’re still human beings.
“You need to have conviction, that deep sense of purpose, to give yourself permission to act against the grain of your personality.”
Andy: I can’t agree more. It’s all personal.
[The second thing successful people do] is customization, which is probably the most interesting thing I found. More than you think, you’re able to tweak or adjust situations to make them just that little bit more comfortable. It’s sort of like buying a suit. Very few of us buy suits off the rack, and they fit perfectly. We have to get the tailor to tweak them a little bit here or there. You can do that with situations, too.
I’ll give you one funny example. I have a student I was talking to the other day who is quite introverted and awkward in social situations, but she really wants to engage with people and make friends. For the longest time, she would go to these get-togethers and sit in the corner. She realized, though, that there was something she could do about it. She happens to be a photographer, [and] one day, she decided to bring a selfie stick to these parties. All of a sudden, it broke the ice. It was the perfect catalyst for her to start conversations. People came over. She felt more comfortable. She started exchanging emails to send the pictures, and so on. That’s a little example, but there are many ways we can customize situations to make [them] just that little bit more comfortable.
The last thing [successful people do] is have clarity. Clarity is pretty simple. In situations outside our comfort zones, with a lot of fear and anxiety involved, we tend to catastrophize. We look at the worst-case scenarios, or maybe even fixate on the unrealistic best case. Like if I’m going to give a speech, “I’m going to be a total failure,” would be the worst case. Or, “I’m not giving a speech unless it’s the best TED Talk ever,” would be [the unrealistic best case].
But if you’re able to claim that psychological middle ground and anchor yourself there, that’s really critical for [giving] yourself the confidence and courage to take that leap.
So, to get that conviction, to customize it, and to have some degree of clarity, those were the things that enabled people to reach outside their comfort zones.