A Tribute to Jan and Growing Outside Your Comfort Zone
[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Laura Patterson, Leadership Coach and Consultant at MOR Associates. She previously was CIO at the University of Michigan. Laura may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
I recently received word that a friend, Jan, had passed away. Jan was a special and unique person. I was shocked by his sudden death and I write this reflection as a tribute to his life and the lesson we can take away from it.
I met Jan and his wife, Lia, when I was riding my bicycle across the US. They were from the Netherlands, using cycling as a way to see the United States and meet the people here. Jan was a strong rider. Some days Jan rode with the “fast group”, pushing himself to his physical limit. Most days he rode with Lia and others of us in the slower group, talking, taking photos and reflecting on the experience we were having. He became somewhat of a “rock star” of the cohort of cyclists, not because of his physical abilities but because of his interest in getting to know everyone on the trip. To Jan, relationships mattered, and by the end of the trip he had built strong relationships with many in the group.
When Jan died last week, he was cycling across South America. He died in his sleep on the plains of Patagonia. I think if he had realized that day of riding was his last, he would have had no regrets. Jan lived much of his life outside his comfort zone. I guess you could say being outside of his comfort zone was his comfort zone. He fully believed that if you weren’t growing, you were dying.
Learning about Jan’s passing led me to reflect on the importance of getting outside the comfort zone for growth to occur. It is easy to fall into the “sameness” of each day of work, doing what you know and are comfortable with, and before you know it, half your career has passed by. To grow, you have to break the routine and go beyond what is familiar.
This common-sense notion is supported by neuroscience research that has found learning centers in the brain are stimulated by unfamiliar situations and outcomes. On the other hand, when confronted with stable and familiar situations, learning centers in the brain do not engage. This is especially prevalent in domains where we have deep expertise. Our expertise can form a sort of auto-pilot that limits our readiness to learn. When we are an expert, we often have a routine way to apply that knowledge. While it is beneficial and efficient to leverage that expertise, we also need to be aware of its limitations, and of the need to push ourselves outside of the familiar. By pushing outside of our comfort zones, we are able to accelerate our own learning and growth.
One of the beautiful aspects of MOR leadership programs is that you don’t need permission to go outside the familiar. During the workshops you are not at work. You don’t have to worry about what your colleagues think or your reputation. You can experiment. You can try out a new you. You can explore new ideas and actions. You can be vulnerable without being threatened. You can receive feedback without feeling criticized. You can learn to manage your anxiety and use it in making impactful presentations. You can develop relationships that last a lifetime. You can take back to your organization what you’re learning and apply it to your work by practicing new actions until they become habits.
I want your experience to be rich, rewarding and transformative. It’s up to you. The magic begins where your comfort zone ends. Whether you are currently in a MOR program or an alum of one or many years, what will you do this week to step outside your comfort zone like Jan so regularly modeled? And, as a leader, what will you do to create an environment where others can step outside their comfort zones? This is where learning can begin.