Graphic of a women reading a book then an arrow to her doing yoga with text on the bottom saying "step outside your comfort zone"

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

The summer before my daughter started high school, she went on a two-week backpacking trip in the Sierras with a wonderful group called GirlVentures. San Francisco-based GirlVentures calls this program Transitions and specifically designed it for girls who are making the big step into high school. It was a life-changing experience for my daughter, and her mom!

On the morning of the departure, all the girls and their grown-ups gathered to see them off. The GV team took us all through an exercise about learning.  They had us stand close together in a circle and described this first circle as our comfort zone—we all felt safe and secure here, knowing we knew exactly what to expect here. Then we moved outwards into a bigger circle and they had us envision that this represented some uncertainty, and called it our learning zone. While we still felt close enough to feel safe, new things would come up, like sleeping outside away from home, but we could see our friends and know we could do it. Then we moved out very far away from each other and talked about this being a zone that made us anxious and too worried to handle new things.  

The point was to step far enough away from your comfort zone so you can learn new things, but to recognize when you were too far out and overwhelmed to learn. At that point, you ask for help and get support so you can move back into your learning zone, or even your comfort zone, as needed. I loved how the GV staff emphasized that things would be different for everyone and that THAT WAS OKAY, that it was your job to just know yourself enough to get where you needed to be. 

It was a powerful exercise for me personally and as a mom.  I used that imagery with my daughter for many years to guide her through her tumultuous teen years, even into college.  It also helped me, as a 49-year-old woman, learn how to step outside my comfort zone so I could grow, and achieve things that I’d been avoiding out of fear.


I recently came across an article by Andy Molinsky, a Professor of Organizational Behavior and International Management at Brandeis University. His work helps people step outside their personal and cultural comfort zones. He wrote in an article:

“You need to speak in public, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your network, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with strangers. Speaking up in meetings would further your reputation at work, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Situations like these — ones that are important professionally, but personally terrifying — are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. An easy response to these situations is avoidance. Who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?”

As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. It’s simply a reality of the world we work in today. And without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement. How can we as professionals stop building our lives around avoiding these unpleasant, but professionally beneficial, tasks?

Professor Molinsky developed a list of 10 questions to ask yourself when you are facing such a challenge. These should help you stop avoiding and successfully navigate the challenge. First, think of a situation you find stressful and have been avoiding–whether that is public speaking, or networking, or having a difficult conversation with someone, or whatever is your personal challenge. Then, use the questions below to see what about the situation might be causing you to step into your panic zone, using the questions below:

1. What is my doomsday version of this situation? (What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen?)

2. If I’m being honest with myself, how likely is this doomsday scenario?

3. What is my dream version of how this unfolds?

4. If I’m being honest with myself, how likely is this dream scenario?

5. What is the most realistic version of how this situation unfolds?

6. If I’m being honest with myself, how likely is this realistic version?

7. If this situation were completely stress-free, would it be something I would like to try?

8. And if it were stressful— at least, at first—is there something I can do to make it feel more manageable?

9. What would be the personal and professional benefit of learning to act effectively in this situation?

10. What is now stopping me from giving this behavior a try?

I am printing out this list of 10 questions and will post it in my office to support me.  It helped me with something just this week!

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