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Best of IdeaCast: Escape Your Comfort Zone

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

The business world values expertise. Take the ten-thousand-hour rule. Or the expression that practice makes perfect. Whatever framing you have for it, this definition of expertise is grounded in comfort. The idea that you’ve gotten so good at something, that it has become second nature. Nothing is a stretch for you. You’re comfortable. You’re effortlessly in the zone.

But the flip side of expertise is that we learn by doing things we have not yet mastered. We also know that many breakthroughs happen when you are outside of your comfort zone.

This anti-expertise is something that Andy Molinsky has studied. He’s a professor at Brandeis International Business School. And he wrote the book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence.

Back in 2017, he came on the show and spoke with Sarah Green Carmichael. He shared the strategies and benefits of getting out of your comfort zone. And we feel his advice still applies today.

Here’s that conversation.

SARAH GREEN: So how can you tell if you’re avoiding something that is making you uncomfortable just because it makes you uncomfortable and you’re avoiding it, or because there’s a really good reason?

ANDY MOLINSKY: I think we’re really good at tricking ourselves and tying ourselves into psychological knots around these issues.

SARAH GREEN: Yeah. My dad likes to say that smart people come up with the smartest excuses.

ANDY MOLINSKY: Exactly. A question that I like to ask myself, and that I like to ask people who I work with on helping to learn to step outside their comfort zones, it’s sort of a thought experiment. If all of a sudden you could snap your fingers and making anxiety go away– just as a thought experiment in whatever situation it is– really eliminate it, would this be something that you’d be excited and happy to be able to do?

So for instance, if I were afraid of networking, of stepping into one of those loud rooms, and you walk in and all these people are talking. And you’re thinking to yourself, who am I to be here? What can I possibly say? How am I possibly going to enter one of these conversations? And you’re so nervous about it. If you think to yourself, if you could erase that anxiety, is that something you’d like to be able to do?

And I think that that question, at least for me, is very helpful in distinguishing situations where we’ve rationalized to ourselves, oh, it’s not that important from situations that if we could learn to cope and learn to step outside our comfort zones, might be a great addition to our repertoire.

SARAH GREEN: I do hear people talk about networking a lot that way. And public speaking is sort of an obvious one. What are some of the other things you’ve heard people talk about that are examples of this kind of thing?

ANDY MOLINSKY: So in my book Reach, I spoke with– interviewed and also observed– people in so many different professions. Managers delivering bad news, firing people, performing layoffs, police officers evicting people from their homes or repossessing property. Doctors performing painful procedures on children, and also then having to explain this to the parents.

I talked to rabbis and priests who had to step into– now it’s funny, because with clergy, you often don’t necessarily think of the human behind the role– but who have to step into a room, maybe, of people they’ve never met before and deliver last rites. And some priests say to themselves, who am I to be in this situation? Like, who am I to be able to do this? I talked with small business owners who are afraid to pitch and promote their ideas, who are uncomfortable with small talk, be it a networking event because maybe they’re introverted.

I spoke with a goat farmer who was so proud of the goat’s milk soap that she was able to produce, and she was terrified to sell it. So there are all sorts of situations in our lives where there are things that we’d like to be able to do– to accomplish a task, to perform a new role, to step into a new job– but they’re outside our comfort zone.

SARAH GREEN: Yeah. Sometimes this behavior just doesn’t feel authentic. We’re trying to do something and it’s like, this just doesn’t feel like me. Tell me a little bit more about how that can get in that way.

ANDY MOLINSKY: Yeah, so in all these situations, they’re outside your comfort zone for a reason. And I’ve uncovered a series of what I call psychological roadblocks that oftentimes, if we just sort of think about it, we say, oh, it’s scary or it’s fearful to step outside my comfort zone, or I’m so anxious. But what’s really behind that?

And one of the things that might be behind it is authenticity, the idea that I’m stepping into this situation, and this just does not feel like me. I remember the first time I taught a class. Now in graduate school– I have a PhD in Organizational Behavior– and in graduate school, you might be surprised to know that we’re actually not really taught to teach. We’re taught to do research. I love teaching, but we weren’t taught to teach.

I remember the first time I stepped into a classroom. It was at the University of Southern California in LA. And I walked in there– I was much younger, of course– and the students were not that much younger than me. And I just felt like a complete fraud, like an imposter, in a way, and also totally inauthentic. People were calling me Professor Molinsky, and I’m like who’s that? Oh wait, me. It just did not feel like me. And there are many, many situations where people feel inauthentic. And that’s a real barrier, I think.

SARAH GREEN: Well, and that kind of points out one of the other challenges you talk about, too, which is the competence challenge, which sounded to me a little bit like the imposter syndrome, where you think. I can’t do this.

ANDY MOLINSKY: Yes, definitely. I think they’re related. Number one and number two are very related. It’s almost like a vicious cocktail of feeling inauthentic and also feeling incompetent, the idea that I’m stepping into this new role, whatever it might be, or this new task. I have to go public speak. I have to deliver bad news, whatever it might be. And you’re afraid you’re not going to be good at it.

And by the way, you probably have some valid reasons to believe that. Plus, not only that, but you might be afraid that other people will see you as not good at it. So it’s not only the anxiety of being not so good at it, but also the fear and embarrassment and potentially shame of knowing that your incompetence is pretty visible.

SARAH GREEN: But how incompetent is it, really? Because you have in the book some really good stories from people like Natalie Portman, Cheryl Sandberg, Larry David, who have had this feeling, too, and talked about it. And they’re not incompetent people.

ANDY MOLINSKY: Right, exactly. You know, I didn’t put it in there to make the book sexier. I put it in there to normalize it. Natalie Portman in particular, she gave a stirring speech at Harvard commencement several years after she graduated about her feelings of being an imposter. So she was walking around as a student at Harvard. And if you looked at her from the outside, you’d assume, Natalie Portman, super confident, incredible actress. I can’t even possibly go over and talk to her. w But inside what she said she was feeling as like a total nobody and an imposter, and that who am I to be here in this group? And she talked about it.

And I think it’s really important to understand that if you feel like an impostor, hey, join the crowd.

SARAH GREEN: One of the other concerns that you lay out as sort of the challenges. We’ve talked about authenticity, competence. Another one is likability. Maybe if you’re trying to do something new, be more outspoken in meetings or get better at giving tough feedback, it’s already hard, but then you’re thinking, maybe this will make this other person not like me. Is this something that you have also struggled with? And how have you dealt with this, and how have the people you studied dealt with this?

ANDY MOLINSKY: Yeah. I experience this every single time I press send on a Tweet. In the world of being an author nowadays– I didn’t know this going into it, that– I thought being an author with writing a book, right? Cool. You get to share your book. But in some ways you almost have to be your own PR firm, not in a bad way, but you have to spread the word.

And when I first started writing these Tweets and posts and so on and doing social media, and I wasn’t that used to it before, I mean, I felt all these things. I felt inauthentic. I felt incompetent because I was doing it all wrong, these crazy hashtags, and afraid that people would think that I’m this crazy, boastful, awful person who is just like this self-promotion machine. And it feels like I’m afraid I’ll be unlikable. And maybe I’m right. Maybe some people feel that way. I think that’s a real concern for a lot of people.

SARAH GREEN: So how did you deal with that?

ANDY MOLINSKY: I think there are a lot of ways to deal with something like this. One important thing is that I had to do it a lot. You know, if you’re afraid of delivering bad news, and you get up the courage to do it– and I talk in the book about finding a source of conviction to enable you to push through the discomfort. Also I talk about customizing. I don’t know if we’re going to about this later, the idea of you finding your own way of doing it and so on. And you can do all that.

But then, if you’re not delivering bad news for another eight months, it’s probably not going to stick in a way, right? So I was constantly doing it, so that helped me. I think also it was discovering why I was doing it. I wasn’t doing it for any sleazy reasons, unsavory reasons. I was doing it because I care about this book. Someone once told me, you wrote a book. You shouldn’t hide it. And I actually think that the ideas in the book can actually help people. I know they can, actually. So I felt that sort of a conviction. That helped me. Plus I also found my own style, too.

SARAH GREEN: You’ve mentioned customizing. So what does it really look like to customize the behavior that they you’re afraid of?

ANDY MOLINSKY: That was one of the most surprising, and frankly exciting, insights that I had from doing research with people across so many different contexts, so many different professions. When we’re stepping outside our comfort zone, I think oftentimes people feel it’s a sort of a helpless and powerless experience. But you actually have more power than you think. And that’s where customization comes in.

This morning you probably customized your latte, customized your cappuccino. We customize our cereals, our, bicycle, our clothes and so on. We have the power to sort of tweak and personalize and customize the way we behave. And even if it’s done in a subtle way, if it’s done in a way that’s meaningful to you, it’s almost like making it a little bit more comfortable or putting a little bit more of yourself into it.

Let me give you some examples. So for example, if you are afraid of networking, let’s say, you might script out a few words that you know really help you to get into a networking conversation. You might wear your power suit. You are not feeling powerful, but you know what? When you put that suit on, you feel just a little bit more powerful. You get intimidated by very large, noisy networking events, and it’s really tough for you. Maybe you bring a friend just to know that that person is there. You don’t want to cling to that person, but just know that person is there.

Maybe you go at the beginning of the event, because if ultimately the event’s a 1,000-person event– it’s super noisy, super stressful for you– it’s not going to be 1,000 people at the very beginning. So you can almost craft a very, very large event into a smaller event.

Let’s say it’s public speaking, and let’s say you’re very uncomfortable with public speaking. Maybe there’s a possibility for you to change it to a Q&A session. Maybe that’s more comfortable for you. In fact, I talk in the book about how Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin, he does that, actually. There are a variety of things. Oh, and one other thing you can do is you can bring a prop. You can bring a prop, just like an actor might bring a prop on stage. And sometimes those props– it’s not like bring some massive, obvious prop. These are often very subtle. I talked about a power suit. There are others, too, yeah.

SARAH GREEN: Yeah. It’s funny you mention a prop, because I immediately think I have a couple of items of clothing that always spark comment. It’s like a man would wear a weird tie, maybe, or a subtly weird tie, and people would say, oh, what’s the deal your tie? Or I have a big orange jacket thing that I wear sometimes, and people say, I love your jacket. And it just is something that people are going to say– it’s a conversation starter at those kinds of events.

ANDY MOLINSKY: Yeah, exactly. So I thought this was a cool one. I have a student who is very, very shy and uncomfortable making small talk, but she really wants to learn to do it. So she started bringing a selfie stick to social situations. Now if you think about it, that’s not only an ultimate conversation starter, but it’s a conversation and social creator, because all of a sudden people are using it. And then if she takes pictures she needs to get their email addresses– or for her it’s probably their Snapchat accounts or something, whatever is so they can share. And all of a sudden it catalyzes the social interaction, when in fact, if she didn’t have that, she probably would have been in the corner sipping her drink or something like that.

I was afraid of public speaking for a long time, and I used to wear a ring, a very special ring. It’s a tiger’s eye stone. It’s a very unusual stone, and my great uncle found it on the beaches of the South Pacific, and he had it made into a ring. And I always admired it as a kid. And once I learned what it was about, it represented courage for me and I started wearing it. He ultimately gave it to me, I started wearing it to give talks. And no one knew that. But for me, it almost was that just a little bit of courage.

So it might not just be one thing. It might be multiple things, and they’re often very, very subtle. But they can just nudge you forward. So that’s customization.

SARAH GREEN: I actually have something like that, too. My grandfather had an army bracelet that I would wear sometimes when I had a big presentation. And I’d think, he fought World War II. What I am doing today is really not a big deal.

ANDY MOLINSKY: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. And it’s a sort of private, personal experience, but it’s an example of customizing.

SARAH GREEN: Yeah. Yeah. One of the other ones is clarity. Can you give us maybe an example of what clarity looks like?

ANDY MOLINSKY: Sure. I think that when we’re in situations outside our comfort zones, oftentimes we kind of go to emotional extremes, especially when the anxiety is high. Psychologists call it catastrophizing. So we think of the absolute worst case situation and we kind of almost fixate on that. Or some of us, actually, fixate on the other side of it, like the ideal situation. In other words, let’s say public speaking, like I’m going to be awful. I’m going to be a total, utter failure. I’m going to embarrass myself. So that’s the thought going in, and do you think that thought makes you want to do it?

Or the other extreme may be, I’m not doing this unless I’m a prodigy. I’ve got to be not only a TED-style, speaker but I’ve got to be the TED-style speaker of TED-style speakers. And so that’s obviously unrealistic as well. So I think what clarity is– and I found among the people who are successful that I’ve worked with and that I talked to– finding some sort of reasonable, grounded perspective that’s somewhere in the middle.

So for instance, yes, I’m scared to speak in public, you might say. And it might not be perfect, but I’ll get through it. And I’m probably going to learn something from it. Next time around it might be just a little bit easier. So that’s what I mean, sort of a psychological middle ground. And I find that that is really important, combined with the customization and the conviction, to be able to push you forward in these difficult situations.

SARAH GREEN: The other challenges you talk about in your book is how sometimes we might worry that thing that feels uncomfortable actually is immoral, and we might avoid doing it because we almost feel like it would be wrong to do this. How can you sort through those feelings if part of you is really worried that the thing you’re avoiding doing isn’t just hard to do, but that it actually might be not the right thing to do?

ANDY MOLINSKY: Yeah, it’s a good question, and that’s a tough one. So I open my book Reach with a story about a woman, Lily Chang, who had to fire her best friend from her startup. Now imagine that, having to fire your best friend. And this is not a fictitious story. This is a real story.

She felt real serious moral qualms about this. It was gut-wrenching for her to do it. But she had a source of conviction, which was that she had hired people to work for her company. They had left really good-paying jobs, and she felt committed to them. On top of that, she felt committed to the people who had provided funding for her company. Plus she also wanted to succeed, and so on. So she had multiple sources of conviction that helped at least carry her through this very difficult moment, and ultimately, that won the day. And she did it because the greater good was, in her estimation, truly worthwhile.

SARAH GREEN: So when you talk about some of the tips and tools and advice that you give people about really finding a source of conviction, what are some of the questions we should be asking ourselves to do that? What are some places we should be thinking about to find that sort of conviction?

ANDY MOLINSKY: Sure. And it’s very personal, conviction. And it’s different for every person. And there are many different sources, which is the good news. So for instance, for some people their source of conviction might be respect, that for instance, you could ask yourself the question, doing this behavior, will it make me look good in other people’s eyes? Or will it win people’s respect? Those types of questions.

Another source of conviction might be skill development. Maybe that’s what you really care about. And by the way, these aren’t mutually exclusive. You might have multiple sources of conviction. But for instance, doing this behavior will help me develop skills I don’t currently have, or maybe even improve existing skills. These are the kinds of questions. Or maybe it’s career advancement. Or for some people, it’s about boosting their self-esteem. Doing this behavior, I know it will make me feel proud. It’s not easy, but I know it will make me feel proud.

Or finally, for a lot of people, it’s helping others. For instance, doing this behavior, stepping outside my comfort zone in this situation will help me contribute to a cause I care about or make a difference in other people’s lives. As I said, it could be a combination of some of these. But these are the types of questions that you ask of yourself. And once you locate it, and once you embrace it, it’s actually a really powerful tool for you.

SARAH GREEN: Part of what I want to do here also is sort of flip this around. So say that you are managing someone who you need to help grow outside their own comfort zone. How can you use some of these techniques to get that other person to reach outside their own comfort zone and try some new things? And how can you support them as they do that?

ANDY MOLINSKY: Number one, I would want to help them understand what their own psychological roadblocks are. So in other words, they might feel anxious, they might feel uncomfortable. But why? What specifically? And we talked a little bit about it. Is it authenticity? Is it competence? Is it likeability, morality, and so on? Where is your pain point, in a sense? Because I think that to help someone forward, you really need to, as you said, a finer point. You need to have a finer point on the anxiety or where it comes from in order to sort of develop a way of grappling with it.

I think it’s also important to help people– and this is really where that perspective taking of having a mentor or a coach or– I’m not sure what context this is, but someone who’s helping someone through the situation– I think it’s really important for people to understand where and how and why they might be avoiding. In the book I talk about all sorts of ways in which we’re great at avoiding situations outside our comfort zone, rationalizing, as we talked earlier about why– you know, I don’t really need to do this. And I think it’s really critical, that’s critical, to have that real talk-style conversation with someone to try to see where their avoidance might be happening.

And then finally, I think it’s very, very helpful to use the framework that I talk about in the book, the idea of conviction, locating your source of conviction, helping someone customize their behavior so that it feels a little bit more natural and authentic, and then help them with that clarity piece to try to not fall off the deep end.

Ultimately, what you want to do is you want to nudge someone, encourage them, motivate, incentivize, whatever your word is, get them to try it, because I think that is the ultimate thing. When you try something, you can have some amazing discoveries. You can discover, number one, this isn’t as bad as I thought it was, and a lot of people discover that. And number two, I’m better at this than I thought I was. And that can propel you forward in a major way. So getting someone to actually do it and try it, that’s the key, I think.

SARAH GREEN: Yeah. Or I’m just as bad at this as I thought I was, but actually, it’s not that embarrassing.

ANDY MOLINSKY: It’s not that embarrassing, exactly. Right. I can live. I’m not going to die.

SARAH GREEN: Exactly. Exactly. How can we just develop a better attitude towards this?

ANDY MOLINSKY: You know the movie Swingers where the guy says, you’re more money than you think you are, or something like that? I think we have more resilience, more capability than we actually realize. I actually wrote a Harvard Business Review article about this exact issue, that if you think about your life, you’ve been stepping outside your comfort zone your whole life. I have kids, and I imagine some of the listeners do. And when they move from crawling to walking, that’s a big move outside your comfort zone. When you go off to school for the first time, when you go from elementary school to middle school to high school, from high school to college. I see that poignantly. I teach at a university.

SARAH GREEN: But it’s terrifying.

ANDY MOLINSKY: It’s terrifying, but people do it, right?

SARAH GREEN: Childhood is terrifying.

ANDY MOLINSKY: Childhood is terrifying, but you made it through. And don’t forget it. Don’t let your past successes be like Teflon, be nonstick. Let them be stick, in a sense, and carry that with you. And remember that you’re probably braver and also more capable than you think you are. I think that if you can realize that you can turn the tables, and that you have more power than you think, you can locate your source of conviction. You can customize your behavior. You can find that clarity, all those things that we’re talking about. You can pinpoint where your sort of emotional blockages are and so on.

That starts to make you feel a bit more in control. And I think that that’s what starts to build resilience.

SARAH GREEN: Andy, thank you so much for joining us today.

ANDY MOLINSKY: Oh, I really enjoyed it, Sarah. Thank you.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Brandeis professor Andy Molinsky in conversation with Sarah Green Carmichael. Molinsky wrote the book “Reach.”

And we have more timeless episodes like this one … as well as more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at HBR dot org slash podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by me and Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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