“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” -Neale Donald Walsch

We’ve often been told that it’s important to step outside of our comfort zones, so much so that perhaps it has become trite to say so. But it turns out there is hard scientific data that indicates how beneficial it can be to push the boundaries on what we think is possible.

Scientists define the comfort zone as a psychological state in which a person feels familiar and at ease, while experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress. Examples of a comfort zone can vary from person to person, but include a stable home or work environment, as well as normally frequented locales and situations filled with friends and acquaintances. The term can apply to places, relationships, sports, or events, and implies a level of familiarity and comfort that allows a person to relax.

When put in scientific terms like this, it’s a wonder why a person would ever want to leave their comfort zone. Why leave behind a place that is so relaxing in order to face a situation that is uncertain, frightening, and perhaps even dangerous?

Because there are solid reasons for doing so. For example, The Wall Street Journal has an article that posits “Somewhere between checked out and freaked out lies an anxiety sweet spot, some researchers say, in which a person is motivated to succeed yet not so anxious that performance takes a dive. This moderate amount of anxiety keeps people on their toes, enables them to juggle multiple tasks and puts them on high alert for potential problems.”

Or put another way, when we stay inside our comfort zone, and have no reason to fear or be anxious, it’s easy to become complacent and no longer be operating at top alertness. We become sloppy, careless, and may even act recklessly.

One reason we often choose to stay within our comfort zone is that we learn to fear failure. But that fear can lead us to avoid taking risks, which means we’ll often come well short of our potential. One of the best reasons to push ourselves is that it allows us to learn what we are truly capable of.

John Gardner, in his book “ Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society,” writes, “One of the reasons why mature people are apt to learn less than young people is that they are willing to risk less. Learning is a risky business, and they do not like failure. In infancy, when the child is learning at a truly phenomenal rate — a rate he will never again achieve — he is also experiencing a shattering number of failures. Watch him. See the innumerable things he tries and fails. And see how little the failures discourage him. With each year that passes he will be less blithe about failure. By adolescence the willingness of young people to risk failure has diminished greatly. And all too often parents push them further along that road by instilling fear, by punishing failure or by making success seem too precious. By middle age most of us carry in our heads a tremendous catalogue of things we have no intention of trying again because we tried them once and failed — or tried them once and did less well than our self-esteem demanded.”

Finally, if that’s not enough to convince you, a 2013 study found that learning demanding new life skills as you age helps to keep you mentally sharp. Denise Park, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas, said, “It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something—it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially. When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone."

Specifically, unfamiliar activities such as quilting or digital photography were found to have significant benefits on mental acuity over time. Other more familiar tasks, such as listening to classical music or completing word puzzles, had no visible benefit on memory.

The benefits of learning to take risks and move outside your comfort zone are plentiful, including in business and sports. If you want to learn to be smarter about how and when to take risks, try working with a life coach. Contact me today for a free consultation.

More and more, it can feel like technology advances and industry shifts are making it difficult to stay on top of the skills and knowledge we need to stay at the forefront of our chosen field. But for working adults, the longer we’ve been out of school, the harder it can be to face the prospect of returning to class. Sometimes even admitting that we need to learn a new technology or skill can be a challenge. 

But the necessity for adult learning has never been greater, and those who embrace the challenge will be better equipped to deal with current and future realities. 

The good news is that learning opportunities have never been more prevalent. The decision is no longer a simple choice between grad schools, but rather selecting from a buffet of online classes, weekend workshops, and adult retreats that offer precision learning opportunities for specific skills, whether it’s mastering a new piece of software, taking an online course in a related field, or getting qualified for a particular license that’s necessary for career advancement. 

For example, while many of the courses at Creative Live are tailored for photographers and graphic designers, they also offer a plethora of workshops aimed at small business owners. These courses tend to last 1 to 3 days and feature expert instructors guiding you through practical lessons. Topics covered include finance, software, legal instruction, marketing, social media, and more. The best part is if you watch live, there’s no cost, and you only need to pay if you want to download the class so you can watch later. 

Additionally, if you live in a university town, you should check what programs are available to local residents to take or audit classes. For example, the University of Oregon allows Eugene residents to sign up for up to 8 credit hours at a greatly reduced rate as part of their community education program. And no matter where you live, leading universities such as Harvard and MIT are giving students all over the world the opportunity to participate in certain online courses for free. Available courses include The Fundamentals of Neuroscience and an Introduction to Aerospace Engineering. 

And while becoming a full-time student may be impossible for most working adults, with families to support and incomes to maintain, community colleges provide a comprehensive array of night and weekend courses marketed to busy professionals. Monster.com has an interesting article that highlights many of the opportunities that community colleges can afford. For example, “Information technology is one area of special strength for community colleges. For the IT certifications that can give aspiring technologists a toehold, many community colleges offer unsurpassed training.”  

Of course, one of the most common reasons for professionals to return to school is to receive an MBA. In addition to leading to significant salary boosts, MBA programs offer tremendous internship and networking opportunities and high-level management training. Many companies offer financial assistance to employees who enroll in an MBA program, and a lot of promotional opportunities are only available to staff with MBAs.  

Whatever industry you’re in, you’ll want to research what the advantages are for having an MBA. Of course, this is true of other master’s level degrees as well. For example, depending on the industry, you may be better off with a graduate degree in Public Policy or Public Health, or maybe even a law degree, rather than an MBA. Figure out where you want your career to be in ten years, and find examples of people who have already followed a similar career path. What degrees do they have? It’s a good bet you’ll want to follow a similar track. 

Whatever option you end up taking, whether it’s a full-time return to school, an online course, or a weekend workshop, time management is going to be essential. You’ll want to carefully plan out your schedule, and don’t forget to budget extra time for study and networking. 

I know how daunting it can be to think about returning to school or learning a new skill. That’s why it can be really helpful to have someone to talk through all the options and offer guidance and support when it comes to exploring your career options. A life coach can be extremely useful in helping you come up with a fruitful and successful path to furthering your career. 

Contact me today and we can start discussing where you’d like to see your career take you.