Comfort Zones. We hear about them all the time. More specifically, we are always being told that we need to get out of them. Makes sense, right? If we stick to only what we know, we get only what we’ve always gotten. So, if you want to grow, find your comfort zone. Then get out of it. Easy, right? Not so much. For starters, where exactly does your comfort zone end? How far out of it do you need to go to grow? What if we get outside of our comfort zone and it’s horrible? And most importantly, what do we hope to gain from this uncomfortable process?
The answer to the first three questions is simple: We don’t know. The answer to the final, crucial question is even simpler: More you. And a better you.
If we met today, you would likely never believe that I long had (and sometimes still have) a fear of public speaking. And I mean fear. The kind that makes me wish I were anywhere but right there at that moment, hives and all. I never liked being the center of attention. It started to become a problem in college. And by that, I mean that it started to hold me back. Suddenly, the idea of raising my hand and having all eyes in the room on me was horrifying. What if my answer was wrong or people didn’t agree with my opinion? So, I never raised my hand, even if I did know the answer. And those moments when I did get called on, I turned bright red and stumbled through the answer. I missed out on standing out to and developing relationships with professors. I missed out on being my best me in college.
And it only got worse from there. When I started working, I listened and tried never to speak. When forced to, I could feel the flush creeping up my chest, neck and face while waiting for my turn. I actively avoided opportunities that required any amount of public speaking, even if the role was a dream come true. This inability to speak up was hurting my career. And it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more I avoided speaking in public, the more anxious I became when I had to. The more anxious I became, the worse it went the next time I spoke. And on the vicious cycle went.
Until I finally became sick of that feeling. I finally decided that there was absolutely no reason for this fear to continue to rule me, and prevent me from being my best self. I realized that I wasn’t “unable” to speak in public; I was unwilling to be imperfect. I have always admired people who are bold, people who weren’t afraid to be “wrong” in front of others. And I was determined to learn that skill just like they had. I started small. Speaking up more at work. Taking the lead in 1×1 conversations with peers. Then with my boss, and eventually senior management. Presenting to a small group in the office went from causing full-fledged panic attacks several days before, to only causing a minor panic attack the morning of. I realized that when I was stopped worrying about the hives, I could focus on the fact that I actually knew what I was talking about and that people were interested in my opinion. It felt like a leap of faith but I had to trust myself and realize that I was good at my job. Next came the previously unimaginable: voluntarily speaking at meetings and running small training sessions, which eventually led to the realization that I had left that fear far behind me, in a comfort zone I can barely recognize anymore.
I learned a lot about myself from pushing myself to do what was uncomfortable. I won’t tell you that I love public speaking now. I don’t. However, by pushing myself outside my comfort zone, I’ve opened the doors to new opportunities, projects, this website, this career.
After all, the world doesn’t end when I don’t know an answer, or if someone disagrees with my opinion. So, let’s push ourselves together.
For more on getting uncomfortable, check out this great HBS article. She speaks my language.