One of the greatest barriers to stepping outside our comfort zones is fear. We have no sense of what will be on the other end of taking a leap and that uncertainty is simply intolerable. But what I’ve learned – from my own experiences and from helping with others’ – is that the reality of taking that leap is often much less intolerable than the fear. And if you don’t believe me, take a look at the latest psychological research on the topic: we’re notoriously bad at predicting how we will feel in the future. And in the case of comfort zones, we often get it wrong.
Take, for example, my own experience of going abroad for the very first time – in the pre-internet, pre-texting, pre-emailing days when going to a different country felt like going to a different planet. You were very far away and had no easy means of reaching back to home.
The situation was study abroad in 1989. And when I stepped onto that plane in Logan airport in the evening and said goodbye to my parents, it was pure fear. I didn’t have any sense there would be something positive on the other end. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to live and communicate in a language I was only barely proficient in. And being alone – really alone – was a very scary proposition.
But when I landed, the reality soon became quite different than the fear. Yes, things were clearly different — but it wasn’t all that different. I remember feeling so surprised for some reason that they had taxis (remember – pre-internet days)… and that I could actually get by in my rudimentary Spanish.
I felt uneasy, and a little bit homesick, but it was exciting and interesting as well – trying to make out what everyone was saying… meeting all these new and interesting people. My point is that I surprised myself after making the leap — and I think that’s an important lesson whenever you consider stepping outside your comfort zone.
The reality you anticipate — from a fearful state of mind, is so different from the reality you actually experience on the other side of the threshold. This could be taking on a new job; moving to a new city; switching from one profession to another… really any situation in life where you have a chance to grow and progress and develop, but it’s scary.
In the end, that semester in Spain was a transformational experience for me — dictating my future career path, enriching my life in a myriad of ways, and introducing me to the joys of siestas, paella and tapas. And for anyone contemplating a similar leap in their life, remember that fear is a terrible prognosticator of the future. Take a leap – give whatever it is you fear a try. And I’m guessing you’ll be surprised about what you find on the other side.
About the author: Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of the book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (forthcoming at Penguin Press, January 2017). Connect with Andy on Twitter and LinkedIn.
In early 2016 Andy was featured on The Culture Guy podcast; you can still listen to that episode.
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