After 20 years as an investigative agent, I found myself in a comfort zone. Safely ensconced in familiar territory, I balked when asked to be the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. It sounded like fun and even a little glamorous because I would be interviewed by local and national news media. So why did I hesitate when offered the job?
I would move from being the senior agent on my squad, where I knew everything about my job, to a new situation where I knew absolutely nothing. None of my former skills as an investigator prepared me to handle probing questions from reporters.
Over the years, I’d worked counterintelligence, espionage and terrorism cases. But the only time I felt truly terrified was in front of a live TV camera. The FBI needed someone who could come across as witty, credible and polished.
I’m the type of person who comes up with the best retorts about 20 minutes after the question is asked. I needed to learn how to think quicker on my feet.
I had to learn the ropes from the bottom up. I was tempted to feel humiliated by my lack of experience; instead, I felt humbled by all I had yet to learn. There was no resentment, only a slow understanding that we are all students of life.
One of the dumbest things you can do in your career is stay, for years, where you’re comfortable. Not only will you get bored, you’re likely to forget that no job is secure.
The only thing that is secure is your belief in yourself and your ability to contribute to something that matters to you in life. If you maintain that mindset, you’ll find rewarding work no matter where you end up. But to land on your feet, you need to continually push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Successful entrepreneurs, leaders and small-business owners understand that if they want to stay ahead of change, they’ll need to do things that have never been done before. This means taking risk and having people ready to leave their comfort zones. Innovation requires a mindset that is willing to dive into new and unproven areas.
Here are 5 ways you can move outside your comfort zone:
1. Adapt or die
When you move into the unknown, it’s essential that you adapt to the situation if you want to land on your feet. Assess the best way of interacting with your team. Analyze new information in its context. To be a successful leader, you must evaluate what you think you heard and understand it from different angles.
How to make it work for you: Take what worked for you in the past and modify it to match your new situation. Chances are good that this is not the first time you’ve adapted when you’ve moved into the unknown. Grab and pen and paper and write down your survival tactics and why they worked. Mine your experiences and let them guide you as you move out of a comfort zone in your current circumstances.
2. Keep your ego in check
Ego looks for ways to prove it is right and others are wrong. When we keep ego in check, there is room for the wisdom of others to get in. We are able to listen more deeply, learn with an open mind, and adapt new skill sets.
The ego is always asking “How will this make me look? How will I benefit?” This is one of the reasons ego resists change. It reminds us that the devil we know is sometimes better than the devil we don’t know.
We fear that when we step into the unknown, we will discover painful secrets about the world and about ourselves.
We keep ego in check when we allow ourselves the luxury of trial and error. Like a child who learns to walk, we experience a feel-good neurological response that can be stronger than our ego’s fear of looking like a loser. When we tackle new and difficult challenges, we experience a rush of adrenaline — a hormone that makes us feel confident and motivated.
How to make it work for you: You can step out of your comfort zone and move the focus away from the ego’s discomfort at the same time. Simply ask yourself, “What am I learning about me? What am I learning about the other people in this situation? How can I use this information in my professional and personal lives?”
3. Summon courage
It takes courage to slap down your ego because you may end up in a situation where you feel awkward, clumsy and alone. This can be especially difficult if you’re in a leadership position and feel you need to continue to hone your core competencies. It’s essential that you realize your comfort zone is a tremendous enemy of peak performance.
When successful people in leadership get into a comfort zone, they strive to stay right where they have found success. But it is the average leader who stops at success because success and peak performance are often two different things. Whole lives are spent reinforcing mediocre performance.
It takes courage and mental toughness to continually move in the direction of your biggest goals and ambitions and not stop at success.
How to make it work for you: Keep a petri dish of new experiences near you at all times. Pick one of them each day and experiment with it. If it scares you a little, that’s even better.
You’re scared, yet you still act. Repeat. Over time, you’ll be amazed at how what once scared you is now a commonplace experience.
4. Avoid stagnation
The more accomplished we are at something, the harder it is to learn. Once we become experts in our field, the need to learn is no longer either urgent or necessary. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that we will fuse our skill with our identity.
When we walk into a discomfort zone and risk failure, it threatens to unravel our identity. Our reaction to learning something new is often fierce and visceral because it can strike at the core of who we believe ourselves to be.
Stagnation often breeds complacency — you begin to feel a little too comfortable with the status quo. Once we choose not to learn, we risk stagnation. Unfortunately, the only difference between a rut and a coffin are the dimensions.
How to make it work for you: Intrapreneurship is a term coined in the late 1970s. It incorporates the risks and innovative approaches in personal leadership that are associated with entrepreneurship. Start with setting specific goals that define your personal brand, which is the first step in intrapreneurship. These goals define who you are, what you do and for whom you want to do it.
5. Enlarge your core competency
When we move out of our core competency, we often feel vulnerable and weak as leaders. We’ve been successful, and we’ve become inured to having the right answers and confidence in our choices.
A beginner’s mind, on the other hand, is flexible and agile as it leaves behind old assumptions and gropes for new ways to move forward.
This is exactly the mindset we need when confronted with obstacles and adversity! We may not be able to rely upon our developed skills when facing a new barrier or challenge, but if we’ve continually and deliberately placed ourselves in situations that are beyond our core competency, we are more prepared to deal with them.
With experience and practice, we can predict our response to the unknown with greater accuracy. This is another important component of mental toughness — the ability to choose our response when confronted with the unknown rather than simply react to our circumstances.
How to make it work for you: A beginner’s mind is opening up to the possibilities of what might be. It is a non-grasping, patient and confident understanding of what it means to live our fullest potential. It is having the mental toughness to always be humble and always strive to reach peak performance.
How you do anything is how you do everything.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception.
Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.
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