Beyond the Comfort Zone Part 1: Accessing the Growth Zone

Inspiration and growth only come from adversity and from challenge – from stepping away from what’s comfortable and familiar and stepping out into the unknown. Polar explorer, Ben Saunders

A comfort zone has been defined as a “psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and (perceive they are) in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress.” 

Sure sounds cozy, but not much inspiration or growth going on there!

Inspiration, learning, and growth do not thrive in comfort zones. They are the currency of growth zones. Yet, most people are timid about leaving their comfort zones. Why? In a word… fear. 

Fear is a powerful force. We fear the unknown. We fear loss. And we fear their close ally, failure. An out-of-control imagination, coupled with worst-case scenario thinking, turns the unknown into a scary place where all kinds of threats lurk. As a German proverb puts it,

Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.

There is an intriguing relationship between comfort zones and fear. Comfort zones are not static places. They are dynamic, meaning they can expand…and they can contract. As we shirk away from what causes us fear or anxiety, our ability to tolerate those feelings diminishes. Our comfort zone shrinks and we run the risk of living a smaller existence.

In other words, when fear acts on us, we lose. When we act despite fear, we grow. Moving into that growth zone requires a mindset shift. Nelson Mandela put it this way:

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.

None of this is to say that you need to go jumping off into the wild, blue yonder. Well, not yet anyway. Dramatic changes or extraordinary efforts are not necessary to access the growth zone. It can be as simple as…

Using Your Strengths

To bring our strengths to the table, we must first know what they are. Most of us can list some personal strengths, but could you list 24 of them? If not, visit the University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness website and take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. (It’s under the Questionnaires tab.) If that survey sounds familiar, I referred to it in another post. If you didn’t take it then, I encourage you to do it now, if possible. Or at least soon. Self-knowledge is powerful and you will benefit greatly from it.

After you have taken the survey, copy the results and save or print them. Take a good look at the order of ranking. Some of my higher-ranked strengths were no surprise but others were unexpected. Reading them was like shining a warm light on parts of my character I had not recognized before. It was a pleasant change from the harsh spotlight that I readily shine on my faults.

Now, look at your list and identify your signature strengths. Martin Seligman, author, psychologist, and the face of the Authentic Happiness website, tells us how. He recommends that we take each of the top five strengths, one at a time, and ask ourselves, Is this a signature strength?

According to Seligman, signature strengths are those we find easy to own. They feel authentic, elicit enthusiasm when practised, and bring joy and invigoration.

Now for the fun part. After we have identified our signature strengths, Seligman suggests scheduling a designated time to exercise one or more of them in a way we haven’t tried before.

If, for example, one of your signature strengths is creativity, carve out some time to create something. Start small if you need to; maybe a drawing, a poem or haiku, a recipe, or something with wood, paint, or yarn. Try making something you’ve never made before or use your materials differently.

Finding new ways to use our signature strengths and doing it more often expands our comfort zones painlessly. After all, we are doing something we already love and are good at.

Now let’s aim those signature strengths at…

Areas of potential growth

The diagram below is my take on the process of achieving inspiration and growth. We move from a comfort zone through the fear barrier to the learning and growth zone. The growth zone eventually becomes our new comfort zone, then we repeat the process. We can apply this to any dimension of life. I used 5 dimensions in my diagram. Of course, there are others, such as finances, so feel free to customize it to your needs.

My diagram is not the only way to illustrate the process of growth, but I like it because it isn’t linear. Few things in life are linear; progress rarely proceeds in an orderly, one-directional way. Not in my life, anyhow!

The diagram also demonstrates that we can work on several dimensions at once or focus on one at a time. Progress will also vary between the dimensions. We may have everything sorted at work, but our relationships need attention. That’s ok; progress is progress, regardless of the pace.

Let’s say one of your signature strengths is appreciation for beauty, especially nature. You also identify from the dimensions in the diagram that your physical fitness could improve. Signing up to a gym may address the fitness issue but you are far more likely to benefit when you bring your strength into play. You could choose a physical activity that connects you with nature; think paddle-boarding, bushwalking, golf, or surfing. When an activity aligns with your strengths, you will find ways to overcome obstacles and continue it.

One of my signature strengths is love of learning. I also needed to expand the dimension of work. This newsletter is the result of that combination. Every week involves research and learning and I love what I do. The more I write about and practice what I have learned, the more adventurous I feel. As a result, I found the courage to begin narrating my posts, which was definitely outside my comfort zone. Despite the fear, I’m thrilled with the achievement.

And finally…

Terri Cole, author of Boundary Boss, says that cozying up to the unknown is a game changer. “There can be something profoundly liberating about surrendering to the ebbs and flows of life’s changes,” she says. “You can learn to embrace the unknown, which is where all the infinite possibilities of your life reside.”

Learning to embrace the unknown builds resilience. We develop the ability to handle change, challenges, and uncertainty with poise. That’s where inspiration and growth live.

What is a small but courageous choice you can make today? James Clear

If fear, especially the fear of failure, holds you back, check out this post.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash



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