Our natural tendency, most of the time, is to resist situations in which we feel pressure and strain. Stress is uncomfortable and we often go to great lengths to avoid it. We try to operate within our comfort zones – settling for what seems manageable and within easy reach when it comes to our personal and professional goals.
It is true that chronic stress can be unhealthy and damaging to both our health and psyche. However, when we don’t push ourselves to take on new challenges, wade into untested waters or try our hand at new experiences, we are also turning away from opportunities for learning, inspiration and creativity. If something is too easy, it may be time to think of ways to push the envelope a little bit.
We have all pulled off great work with our backs up against the wall. Think back to that deadline you initially thought was impossible to meet or that successful presentation that caused you a few sleepless nights. Would you have risen to the challenge as you did without that extra adrenaline shot of stress and pressure? There is science behind this and research to show that stress – in small and controlled doses – can help in boosting efficiency, alertness and self-esteem.
So, what does stepping outside your comfort zone entail? It depends on the situation and environment. At work, it could mean taking on a new responsibility or project that causes you to stretch yourself. It could mean championing an idea or solution you really believe in even if it seems difficult to pull off. It could mean being participative and involved in areas that are not entirely within your sphere of responsibility. Yes, all of this calls for time, commitment and a certain amount of courage. But the learning and results that accrue from this approach can be invaluable.
In your personal life, you could throw your weight behind learning a new language, an instrument or some other new skill that engages and stimulates untapped neurons in your brain.
In a revealing and very human essay, Melinda Gates once described how she – an introverted person with a strictly Catholic upbringing – found herself preparing to deliver a very important speech on the need for contraceptives for women in developing countries. As the day approached, the spotlight shy Mrs. Gates felt nervous about having to stray so far outside her comfort boundaries. What kept her going was the conviction that it was a vital message and one that she was in the best position to deliver. The speech became a precursor to the Gates Foundation’s groundbreaking work in the area of family planning across the developing world.
So the next time, an opportunity presents itself – to speak up, to learn a difficult skill, to go the extra mile at work – don’t back off. It is in those times when we rock the boat where there is the greatest potential for change and creativity.