The Case for Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone
Before he became the world’s most iconic investor, Warren Buffett was a shy and timid business student, so phobic of public speaking that he was scared just to stand up and say his name. Knowing his fear would sideline his career, he enrolled in a public speaking course at Dale Carnegie & Associates, paying with a $100 check.
But when he got home, he changed his mind and canceled the check. The thought of being on stage with everyone watching him was too much. And so, faced with a situation that felt threatening, he decided to stay in his comfort zone.
Threat is among the most important concepts in neuroleadership. Though we often associate the word with physical danger, studies show that social threats — such as the fear of embarrassing yourself on stage — can unleash comparable alarm and distress in the nervous system, often lingering longer than it would in the case of physical danger.
Take feedback conversations. When your boss asks you to step into their office so they can give you feedback on your performance, it’s the social equivalent of hearing footsteps behind you in a dark alley. The result: The brain enters a threat state, sometimes called the fight-or-flight mode that compromises the prefrontal cortex and interferes with the ability to think clearly. So, if organizations aren’t careful, the workplace can be so threatening it impedes productivity. To keep employees relaxed and productive, managers need to manage threats.
But there’s an irony here: The desire to avoid threat itself can interfere with our ability to do good work — by trapping us in our comfort zones and preventing us from venturing out to learn new things. Although intense threats are debilitating, not all types should be avoided. On the contrary: Low levels of threat actually signal that we’re learning and growing.
More than ever, organizations are shying away from challenging employees, veering instead toward comfort and safety. And who can blame them? The world has become filled with uncertainty of all kinds. Since the beginning of the pandemic, organizations have worked hard to make employees feel physically and psychologically safe. But there’s a risk in going too far. When we over-prioritize comfort, work lacks challenge — and a lack of challenge means a lack of meaning. As a result, employees quit — not because they’re overworked, but because they’re bored and underwhelmed, a phenomenon known as “boreout.”
Meanwhile, our society retreats further into overprotectiveness and fragility. We create “safe spaces” and issue “trigger warnings.” We encourage children to avoid any situation that makes them uncomfortable. These injunctions are often well-intentioned and necessary, especially when it comes to physical and psychological safety. Employees, for instance, need to feel safe to speak up to managers — and that requires an environment in which they feel free to express dissent.
But a culture of overprotectiveness comes at a cost. When we encourage the belief that discomfort is dangerous — and avoid it the way we avoid actual safety hazards — we become defensive and fragile. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” “A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”
There’s a nuance to the science that sometimes gets lost. When it comes to work, the optimal threat level is not zero. Rather, there’s an optimal level of anxiety that actually improves performance. We work best in a mild threat state called “optimal arousal,” also known as eustress or a Level 1 threat. When we’re either too comfortable or not comfortable enough, we’re not productive. As Yale neuroscientist Amy Arnsten explains, “The prefrontal cortex is like the Goldilocks of the brain. It has to have everything just right or it doesn’t function well.”
So what’s the best way to push ourselves out of our comfort zone at work?
Adopt a growth mindset
There’s no way around it: Growth requires embracing discomfort. To quote a mawkish but accurate motivational poster: “Comfort zones are where dreams go to die.”
The first step is to adopt a growth mindset, the hallmark of which is the willingness to try new things, fail, and learn from failure — all of which requires accepting the presence of fear. If you avoid everything that scares you, you’ll never learn new things. Whether you want to learn to dance, get better at public speaking, or approach someone at a party, you need to put yourself in situations that make you uncomfortable. It’s the same principle behind strength training: stressing your body beyond what it can comfortably handle. Over time, your muscles get bigger, and you get stronger. Discomfort stimulates growth — literally.
Reframe the meaning of discomfort
As Epictetus observed 2,000 years ago, it’s not situations that make us anxious but our interpretation of them. And the default interpretation isn’t always the right one. Contrary to what your brain tells you, discomfort doesn’t equal death. In the modern world, discomfort often means you’re making progress — that you’ve pushed yourself out of your comfort zone and taken on a difficult challenge.
The key is to change the meaning of discomfort — a process known as reappraisal. “No pain no gain.” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” These mottos all have the same message: Learn to see discomfort as an important sign of progress and growth.
In one study, for example, improv students who were told that their “goal is to feel awkward and uncomfortable during the exercise” learned more and made more progress than students who were advised that their goal was to “develop new skills.” “When we feel out of our comfort zone, we interpret that as a sign to proceed carefully, or not at all,” explains Kaitlin Woolley, the Cornell psychologist who led the study. “Yet, ultimately to succeed in business, we need to take risks. Seeking discomfort can help ensure our success.”
Even with the right mindset, stepping outside your comfort zone is, by definition, unnerving. When you think about speaking in front of a thousand people, your stomach might fill with butterflies. But as stressful as it feels, it probably won’t be as unpleasant as you imagine.
Remember, even a small step is a step forward. The goal isn’t to terrify yourself — it’s to find an optimal state of arousal in the face of mild threat. And the good news is it gets easier. Over time, you’ll get used to the feeling of “productive discomfort.” You may even come to embrace and enjoy it as a sign you’re getting better.
As for Warren Buffett, he realized he had a choice: face his fear or accept he would never fulfill his full potential. So once he graduated, he went back to Dale Carnegie and signed up for the class again — only this time, he paid in cash so he couldn’t back out. “That $100 course gave me the most important degree I have. It’s certainly had the biggest impact in terms of my subsequent success,” Buffett said. “You’ve got to force yourself to do some things sometimes.”