Your comfort zone: One size does not fit all

For years, I’ve been telling people to get out of their comfort zones, sending them out into the streets of San Jose or Sydney or Raleigh to talk to strangers about a challenge. Recently someone led me to a new insight that hit me hard: comfort zones come in different sizes! For some people, the idea of talking to strangers is absolutely ordinary and relaxing — deep in the safety of the comfort zone. For others, talking to a new person requires so much psychological energy that there’s nothing to spare for learning.

In design thinking and lean startup bootcamps, we send people into the field to do ethnographic interviews with strangers for two important reasons.

  • 1: Information about the needs of the customer lies in the customer, not in the builder. So builders need to go out and listen.
  • 2: Innovators live in uncertainty — if the outcome were certain, it would be done already. To build something new, whether it’s a product, a business, a service or a career, you have to learn to survive (thrive?) in uncertainty. Talking to strangers allows you to practice uncertainty with the stakes reduced by the fact that you’ll never see this person again.

Here’s the tricky part though: Getting the stakes just right for each individual. How can we do that when some people LOVE talking to strangers (“please don’t throw me into the briar patch!”), and some find it to be psychological torture?

We’ll have to ask people to set the proper risk-level themselves.

Here’s a new game I’m going to play with clients when I send them to flex their uncertainty muscles and learn from strangers.

You have an energy budget. It takes a certain amount of energy to listen and learn. It takes a certain amount of energy to start and stay with a conversation with a stranger. Where does your budget balance? In the awkward zone.

If you feel that its awkward to talk to a stranger in a public place, then this is just the right task for you!

For some people, it’s not at all awkward, they love talking to strangers! This task lands in the comfort zone for them. If this is you, you need to risk a little more. Make a point of talking to someone who feels a little awkward to you — go after a clothing or age or socio-economic difference. Talk to the manager instead of the front-line staff person. Or the other way around. You should feel uncomfortable. A blush or two, a little sweat, that’s what you’re looking for. You can learn about the challenge while staying in your comfort zone, but you can’t learn about risk.

For some people, talking to a stranger reminds them of a trauma or triggers anxiety that draws a huge amount of energy. You can force yourself to do it, but you can’t also listen and learn at the same time. This task puts you in the terror zone. If this is you, draw it in. Interview people who are safe for you. Coaches, course leaders, other attendees. Call people who love you on the phone and interview them. Find a store that caters to your hobby so that people there feel familiar. You should feel uncomfortable. A blush or two. A little sweat.

If your heart is pounding, you’re pouring sweat, it feels like you’re being attacked by a monster, then you’re in the terror zone, and your fight-or-flight system has kicked in. That’s a great place for escaping from a monster, but not a great place for learning. Dial it back.

In short: Do please definitely do interviews. If you want to learn about uncertainty, choose interviewees who put you in the awkward or scary zones. Get out of your comfort zone! And also stay out of fight or flight.

Good luck, it’s awkward out there!

Innovation and entrepreneurship consultant. Poster child for work/life integration.