Step outside of your comfort zone

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When did you grow?

Looking back on your career so far, which parts would you consider to be the highlights? Do you most proudly remember being promoted, or shipping a new product? Are you drawn towards a time when you had to learn something totally new and, with time, became an expert on it? Was it the first time that you took to the stage during a conference and spoke in front of hundreds of people?

Typically when you rewind through these memories to find the highlights, there is one thing in common: they were moments in time that you were pushed outside of your comfort zone. The most satisfying projects were the ones that were hard-won. The best teams you worked with made you initially feel out of your depth, yet with time you leveled up to be just as good as them. The key promotions pushed you just that little bit further than you were comfortable with, forcing you to step up and operate at a higher level than you were on before.

Control is an illusion

Humans are creatures of habit. Many of us crave a predictable, steady routine that allows us to feel that we have control over our lives.

“My new routine is going to be brilliant. Tomorrow I’ll be waking at 5:30AM to do 15 minutes of meditation, followed by a 30 minute run round the park. Then I’d be back to shower and get the 7:15AM train to work, where I’ll have the porridge and smoothie that I prepared the night before. I’ll be in work before everyone else, which means I can get at least 45 minutes of coding uninterrupted before our stand-up.”

And then the next morning the alarm doesn’t go off.

Control is sometimes an illusion. The same can be true about your job. There is a yearning for a time where the workday will flow so effortlessly, where it will be so predictable, with no interruptions or challenges beyond what we know we can manage. Yet, the irony of this idealized situation is that despite it being controllable and comfortable, it can also be the sign of lack of challenge, boredom and stagnation.

Purposefully facing change, challenge and unpredictability pushes us outside of our comfort zone and builds resilience. Do you remember learning to ride a bicycle as a child, and how overwhelmingly impossible it seemed to be able to continue pedaling when the supporting grip was released from the saddle? Sure, you fell a few times, but with continued perseverance you were able to conquer that fear, adjust to the new normality of being unassisted, and now you’re probably able to cycle across Europe if you really wanted to.

The same is true about your job. As soon as you feel that it’s getting too comfortable, your initial reaction shouldn’t be one of kicking back, getting a coffee and taking it slow. Instead it should be a recognition that perhaps you’ve increased your skill to the point that it’s easy again, and you should think about ways in which you can continue to grow.

Why don’t we push ourselves?

As per the example of riding a bicycle, when we are children we are generally more uninhibited than we are as adults. We think less about the world around us, how we are perceived, or judged, and just get on with the task at hand. Scraped knees, bruised elbows and new scars reflect the times that we tried to jump from the slide to the monkey bars, from when we thought it was a great idea to try and climb that precarious-looking tree, or when hurtling off that mound of mud seemed like a fantastic proposition. The curiosity for new experience and pushing boundaries seemed part of our DNA. Yet, as adults, we are more wary of being outside of our comfort zone. Why?

  • Fear of failure: It sucks to fail at something, which can prevent us from wanting to expose ourselves to situations where there is a higher probability of it happening. Doing badly at something can be upsetting and can chip away at the self worth that we have nurtured over the years.
  • Fear of judgement from others: Not only does it feel bad to fail, it can be even worse to imagine that other people around you are also judging you for failing! Imagine the embarrassment of becoming lead engineer on a project only for it to be a complete mess: what would that say about your capabilities?
  • Fear of the unknown: As mentioned previously, we can crave predictability. Given the choice to continue in a role that offers no surprises, why would we put ourselves in one where we have no idea what will happen? Is that not madness?

Taking these three aspects into account, it seems fairly understandable as to why we wouldn’t want to push ourselves too hard. One could even say it’s against our instinct. Yet, overriding this instinct with the logic that doing so will improve us is what makes us more capable in future.

A programming anecdote

You could say that going outside of your comfort zone is akin to introducing controlled chaos into your life. When ruminating on this thought, I was reminded of the Chaos Monkey tool which was developed by Netflix in order to test their production infrastructure. When deployed, the tool randomly kills instances in their live environment. The idea is that developers are forced to create their software knowing that instances thereof could be killed at any time; a scary proposition! However, this means that more conscious is was put into the creation of applications because they could go catastrophically wrong at any time. How could they cope with diminished service? How could they restart gracefully?

The same is true about pushing yourself into new and challenging situations. If you have a comfortable environment where there is little chance of anything going wrong, then you’re not going to develop into a truly resilient person. Exist in turbulence, especially that which has been created by yourself, and you will be a fuller, rounder, human being with a better SLA.

When I learned the most

The times when I learned the most in my professional career were when I forced myself into really uncomfortable situations. Three particular situations stand out; each of which being the first time that I took on a given responsibility:

  • Lead engineer, attempt zero: My first time as lead engineer was on a particularly challenging piece of infrastructure that was written as a distributed system. When I volunteered for this opportunity, had I created anything like it before? Nope. Did I know whether I was going to succeed? Not really. Did anyone else in the company have a lot of experience at doing this? Nope. That lack of safety net made me put in some of my best work. It’s still running in production today (although it could definitely be improved vastly…)
  • Managing my first team: As our company grew after a VC raise, our Engineering department began to require some more line managers, and the opportunity arose for me to take that role. Had I done it before? Nope. Did I always have a plan of becoming a manager? At the time, no. Was it potentially interesting? Definitely; especially so early on in my career. I’m glad I did – I think I’m a better manager than I am programmer, in retrospect.
  • My first conference talk: I’d watched videos of this particular conference on YouTube for years, and I always really respected the quality of their speakers. After taking a punt and submitting an abstract, it turned out that I was going to be one of those speakers myself. I was petrified, but the experience demonstrated to me that standing up in front of a couple of hundred people wasn’t all that different from speaking to a group of ten. At least none of the audience knew me, and I could barely see past the first row for the bright lights! Nothing catastrophic happened, and I’ve since talked at many other events.

In summary

So, in short: we must create difficulty and unknowns for ourselves in order to grow more in our professional careers. How can you do that?

As managers, you also need to think about how to create these environments for your staff. Which of them crave challenge the most? How can you give them new experiences that will really expand their remit as people? How can they push you outside of your comfort zone?

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