Expanding Your Comfort Zone

Davide Bonazzi

Does the prospect of networking at a conference or making small talk between business meetings make you want to curl up in a fetal position?

When you see confrontation brewing, is your first instinct to head for the hills? Helping others extend their personal and professional goals is familiar ground for Andy Molinsky, professor of organizational behavior and international management at Brandeis International Business School. His 2013 book, “Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process,” advised people who work in cultures other than their own on how to adjust their behaviors yet remain true to their authentic self.

Now Molinsky has written “Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence,” which will be published by Avery in January.

Rooted in the observation that successful people are those most willing to tackle what they really, really don’t want to do, “Reach” outlines a three-prong approach to mastering the tasks you fear: develop a sense of conviction, customize your approach to the situation and avoid distorted thinking.

The book recounts anecdotes from people in a wide range of jobs — CEOs, farmers, investment bankers, clergy, military personnel and more — who explain how they were able to accomplish what originally seemed too daunting to try.

What inspired you to write this book?

I have always struggled to step outside my comfort zone. And when you search the internet for advice, much of it is purely inspirational: “Take the leap,” “Go for it,” “The magic happens only outside your comfort zone.” I’m an academic, so that line of thinking was completely unsatisfying to me.

What was missing was a road map for the way out — a set of tactics and strategies and insights that nudge you from fear and avoidance to actually making a change. I decided to write that road map by looking at the problem from an academic perspective but with a general audience in mind.

What makes you an expert?

I’m just like all the characters I profile in the book. I get nervous speaking in public. I have a hard time schmoozing with people I don’t know. I hate giving negative feedback. But the fact that I struggle makes me attuned to the experiences of others.

How should we deal with situations we’d prefer to avoid?

First, understand your defenses, the reasons you’re avoiding this particular task or challenge. Without understanding them, it’s hard to move forward.

Then you have to find your personal motivation for doing the hard work of stepping out of your comfort zone. This is completely different for every person.

Next, you must find ways of personalizing your approach. Though it’s a universally challenging task, stepping out of your comfort zone is anything but uniform. In fact, that’s one of the most empowering aspects: Anyone can do it. You just have to find an approach that works for you.

What’s the worst advice you’ve heard on this subject?

That there’s only one way to do something outside your comfort zone, or that only people who have certain traits can do it successfully. This is just untrue. You can use aspects of your personality to your advantage if you’re conscious of your strengths. The whole one-size-fits-all approach is completely mistaken in my view.

What if we don’t actually want to leave our comfort zone in certain situations?

It boils down to knowing what your goals are. You have to disentangle your true ambitions from rationalizations. If you could remove the anxiety, would the end goal be interesting to you? If the answer is no — even with the barriers removed, you still wouldn’t be motivated to do it — then this particular behavior or task might not be worth pursuing.

But if the answer is yes — if you weren’t so fearful, you’d love to be able to do the task — then it might be worth applying my strategies.

The book is filled with stories of people in different industries and at different leadership levels. Which is most memorable to you?

That’s a hard question. One story that really struck me came from an Episcopal priest, who described the challenges she experienced when administering last rites. I also loved the story of the New England goat farmer terrified of selling her handmade soap, which she was really proud of, at a local store.

Did writing the book require you to leave your comfort zone?

No. I love telling stories to a general audience. It’s funny — academic writing is what forces me outside my comfort zone. It’s much more formal and structured. Though I’ve done my fair share of it over the years, it’s never felt quite as authentically “me” as writing this book.

What’s your own comfort-zone kryptonite?

Ha! How many more examples can you fit into this article? Another very timely one is all the self-promotion I need to do to get myself known around the world as an author. Flooding people’s inboxes or social-media feeds with self-promotional information is a real struggle for me. I’ve had to apply my own tools to develop the conviction that I have to establish this kind of presence if I want the book to do well.

Samantha Mocle is the digital communications specialist at Brandeis International Business School. Click here for more information on “Reach.” 

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