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.