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The Edge of a Comfort Zone

, | November 14, 2023

by Sean McDonald

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Sean McDonald of MOR Associates and Steve Dalton, an Information Systems Analyst at the University of California, Berkeley. They may be reached at [email protected] and [email protected] or via LinkedIn for Sean and Steve.

It is autumn in New England, leaves fall from the trees, and Thanksgiving is right around the corner. ‘Comfort’ comes to mind. Perhaps it’s the cooler air that encourages more time wrapped in a blanket on the couch, or it might be the hot apple pies and turkey dinners headed our way, or the anticipation of seeing family and friends. These all line up as ingredients to how I describe comfort, making me smile.

In MOR Leadership Programs, we often discuss moving outside one’s comfort zone. These thoughts above make me wonder why. I had a great conversation recently about this very topic with Steve Dalton, a MOR Lead From Where You Are program alum from the University of California, Berkeley. We went in and out of ‘what,’ ‘why,’ and ‘how’ as we explored testing one’s comfort zone. We hope this serves you well as you explore the edges of your comfort zone. After all, as Steve shared with me, “no one succeeds outside their comfort zone alone.” It is often the input and encouragement of others that help us nudge or sustain a move out of our comfort zones.

When I first asked Steve how he would describe a comfort zone, two words he used resonated: “familiar” and “patterns.” These things described above are familiar to me. They are recognizable patterns that are comfortable for me and bring positive emotion. Everyone has familiar patterns that bring comfort. For Steve, the “California Kid,” as I call him, falling leaves and cooler New England weather were not things that immediately brought the idea of comfort to his mind; a California fall meant one last blast of good weather before the rains came in. Regardless, we agreed that experiencing comfort and recognizing one’s comfort zone was good.

We quickly acknowledged that just about everything familiar today was once unfamiliar. That is the first big ‘aha’ for me in all of this. The things that bring me joy today were introduced to me as new at some point. Learning new things, going to new places, meeting new people, and doing new things all involved some level of unfamiliarity, operating outside recognizable patterns, and required some discomfort. Said another way, without testing this edge of the comfortable, we are limiting our own potential, the things we may learn, not capitalizing on the energy we may discover, and how we experience the world.

This was the ‘why’ we circled around: growth, in a single word. We know it is not an easy process. Though we came at this from a participant’s perspective in a leadership development program, Steve reminds us that sometimes life circumstances also thrust people outside their comfort zones. As a spinal cord injury survivor, Steve had to adapt to using a wheelchair for mobility. His outlook and approach to life, faced with what feels like endless encounters with the edge of a comfort zone, made me want to know more about how he thought about confronting the uncomfortable. I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to have this discussion with him, and his willingness to share perspective with us all. We both agree this Tuesday Reading is a bit longer than we expected, but our conversation was insightful for us both, and we hope it serves you well.

Crossing the Bridge of Readiness

One of the things Steve shared early in our conversation was related to the notion of acceptance. “You need to accept the reality before you can change it,” he said. He told a story about the first time he was brought to the rehab area of the hospital. As he entered the room, his first thought was, “Wow, look at all those people in wheelchairs.” Even though he was physically in this new reality, his mindset hadn’t gotten there yet. He was now a member of that group but did not think of himself as a wheelchair user yet. A different situation, I see a parallel with every new leadership program. New participants often enter with some degree of doubt and think, “Wow, look at all those leaders,” not yet thinking of themselves as a leader – they would have to grow into that belief.

It was clear from the overarching conversation that our mindsets play a huge role in our growth and encounters with the edges of our comfort zones. What we believe to be true positions us for whatever might be next. Whatever assumptions we embrace constrain what we think is possible. When I asked Steve how we might help others think about testing the edges of their comfort zones, he said, “Question your assumptions.” My brain lit up. For me, the single most beneficial tool for my growth, introduced to me by my late friend and colleague, Rick Fredericks, was Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference:


It is a tool that has helped me question my assumptions. It reminds us that we often focus on the things that reinforce our prior beliefs and actions. I’ve built a practice of asking myself, “Why do I think that?” and “Why did I say that?” This inquiry helps us begin to open ourselves up to other scenarios and possibilities. It could expose us to new realities or perhaps point us in a new direction in the reality we are already in.

Steve and I reconnected when he moved to Massachusetts in December. Regarding questioning your assumptions, he tells a great story about when his wife, Sydney, first proposed this move. “Sydney, you know it snows in Massachusetts. How many months of the year will I be locked in the house?” As the “California Kid,” he had made assumptions about the New England winter based on his experiences visiting Tahoe, where “snow” equals feet of snow and minimal access for a wheelchair user from November to May. That kind of everyday life did not seem comfortable to Steve. With this initial reaction, Sydney suggested they visit New England in the winter to see firsthand, leave assumptions behind, and make their own criteria. The idea of making your own criteria was powerful. It brought control into the formula. If we can build our own criteria, and put assumptions aside, it positions us as the drivers of our growth and possible evolutions.

If you zoom out, this topic has much to do with control. When change happens to us, it can be hard or sad. It can leave us peering into the unknown. When we lead a change or are in charge of an evolution, it can be energizing. In a recent Andrew Huberman podcast, he and his guest, Dr. Paul Canti highlighted two essential inputs in well-being: agency and gratitude. As Steve and I went in and out of our conversation, both inputs resonated with me often. A sense of agency, focusing on what you can control despite the circumstances, can significantly influence how you experience a transition.

Steve introduced me to the term “positive rumination” as a reminder that the stories we tell ourselves affect our mindset; how we make meaning matters. Our stories about what will happen and stories about looking back, like our assumptions, set our thoughts toward what is next. We can contextualize the same event as a terrible setback or something that gave us insight or skills we could not have acquired without going through it. Positive rumination is a tool Steve suggests helps remind us to bring focus to the positives we are encountering, the progress we are making, and the learning that is happening. It reminded me of the Native American proverb about the two wolves. A grandfather explains to his grandson that we all have two wolves fighting for attention within us, one good, one bad. The grandson asks, “Which one will win?” The grandfather suggests, “It depends on which one you feed.”

As a kid, I recall some TV show that planted in my brain the phrase “Showing up is half the battle.” As I reflected on the conversation Steve and I had, I’d like to add ‘ready’ to the phrase, “Showing up ready is half the battle.” The other half, then, might be taking the first move forward.

Taking the First Action

We may be ready, but as we all know, making the first move is still a challenge. Stress, anxiety, and fear can flood our bodies and emotions as we are about to make an initial move forward. A recent podcast by Trevor Ragan, accompanied by Dr Kelly McGonigal, “Rethinking Stress,” reminds us that stress is a natural part of the process, one we can learn to acknowledge is our body’s way of letting us know it is getting ready. They suggest learning how to recognize and leverage this as an energy forward is possible. Steve says, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Although I know this phrase isn’t for everyone and every situation, it is one I will take with me on my journey.

Another tool for supporting moving to action is Steve and Sydney’s “We’ll Figure It Out Triangle.” It is a classic continuous improvement cycle.

1. We possess a foundational set of skills and knowledge that give us:

2. The confidence to push our boundaries and take a:

3. Risk outside of our comfort zone

Succeed or fail in the new endeavor. We acquire new skills and knowledge, which give us confidence that we’ll be able to “figure it out” when we take our next move into the unfamiliar. Dr. Kelly McGonigal notes from the Trevor Ragan podcast that “self-trust is earned through experience.” We see this often with participants in a MOR program. As they implement new practices, even small ones, confidence is fueled, and habits are reinforced.

We Are in This Together

Returning to the idea of not getting out of our comfort zone alone. Steve’s story, and all of ours, is about the other people around us. Family, friends, mentors, coaches, and community have played a role and will continue to play a role in our growth and evolution.

  • Others give us perspective. An external view that can expose a pattern not serving us well or a single question that sparks an ‘aha’ moment.
  • They influence us, even if from far away. Those we have watched, learned from, and taken inspiration from encourage us to continue to grow.
  • They believe in us. As Steve shared, “Believe in other’s confidence in you; if they’re sure, you can be assured.” Sometimes that support is all we need to go from imposter to impressive.
  • And they are there to celebrate with us. In those moments that matter most, even those small moves forward, they are filled with great joy for our progress. It is beautiful.

With Steve’s move to Massachusetts, there has been more than snow to adjust to. He told a great story about his journey toward figuring out how he would mow the lawn from his wheelchair. This was new to him, a new edge to his growing comfort zone. It went the full cycle of what we discussed above: self-doubt, concern about what the others would think (the neighbors), and fear of failure. He said it took some time before he worked up the courage to take the first action. But in that story, I heard a new element to call out of great importance. He recognized the importance of grace. He was giving himself time to feel the fear and build the readiness. You know what happened? The California Kid, who took part in a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon after his spinal cord injury, figured it out. Of course he did.

And now, it is fall in New England, and he is focused on the next edge, those falling leaves.


Steve and I enjoyed this conversation, it energized us both, and we will continue to explore it further together. Our intent is it will energize you to explore this topic further as well. We also discussed whether we needed to mention Steve’s disability. For me, it is Steve’s mindset, how he thinks, and engages the world that has always drawn me to him. He happens to be in a wheelchair. And honestly, it was uncomfortable for me to initially ask him about it, but I am glad I was able to test the edge of that comfort zone. It has allowed him and I to get to know each other further, share our experiences, and as he has reminded me, this is a fact of his life that has imposed its limits but also brought a lot of growth.

How willing are you to move out of your comfort zone?

Last week we asked which lesson is most applicable for you at this time:

  • 24% said strategic planning and relationships.
  • 23% said be intentional and defensive calendaring.
  • 20% said activity ramp-up and recovery cycles.
  • 19% said preparation and reflections.
  • 14% said timely feedback is a gift.

Each of last week’s lessons applied to many of us. Each of us is at a different place in our leadership journey.  Collectively, we benefit from a variety of topics. Similarly, as each of us is on our individual journey, our needs will change as we evolve as leaders and as our context changes. Over time, we each benefit from a variety of topics. It is beneficial to periodically examine your leadership mindset, skillset, and toolset to ensure you focus where needed most.