Fuck that! I’m leaving my comfort zone

This isn’t about “quitting your job and leaving everything behind to live in a tree house in the Gobi desert”. It’s my story of why I put myself deliberately in uncomfortable situations.

Does the following sound familiar to you?

An idea pops up in my mind, I like it, I think about it for a couple weeks and then I do nothing. Or sometimes when walking about I come past an opportunity to help but I’m stuck in the momentum of my current task — so I proceed. Even if I tell myself I should stop, my “body” just walks on. And then I’m uncomfortable to turn around because that would look weird. Or I tell myself “well done, idiot. You’ve missed that opportunity. Again!” even though I still could go back. That’s me not leaving my comfort zone.

On the other hand when describing myself in a job interview I would say I’m not afraid to take risks: I used to be a hockey goalie, I shoot weddings and I try to involve difficult stakeholders in early workshops (true story). It’s not that I actively seek the thrill, but if there’s something to be done I’ll give it a try and see if I can do it.

How it all started…

A couple years ago I was busy being comfortable in my very good life. I had been working for several years as a web-developer-slash-designer, made a decent income, was married to my dream wife and just returned from eight months travelling around Australia. Everything was fine, except that I felt like a passenger in my own life. We where settled in and I didn’t have any real struggles to overcome.

If you are currently in a hard situation this might sound like I’m a unappreciative spoiled brat. Let me assure you I’m not. It just felt like I had more to offer but my daily routine didn’t require me to do so. I felt like I personally stagnated and started to doubt myself, my family and my career choices. This downward spiral happened around the same time our first daughter was born. The first year as parents with was a particularly exhausting time for my wife because our girl didn’t sleep well at night and if we lay her down on her own she would start to cry almost immediately. Additionally, I struggled to grow into my role as a father and felt lonely as a husband. Things went down hill and we almost broke up.

During that time I watched my little girl explore the world around her and I noticed something I had never really thought about. Before she learned something new she obviously went through a long learning phase. Once she mastered a particular action, after the initial enjoyment, it quickly became a routine thing for her. If you’ve ever seen a new born struggle to lift its head or roll over you know what I’m talking about.

You’re probably asking yourself “Tim, that’s obvious — what’s the point?”.
Well, then, why did she learn all those basic skills?

Because she had to. She needed them to cope with her surroundings.

I reflected on this. It’s no secret we humans have a fundamental change aversion. At the same time paradoxically we as a species are capable of reinventing us over and over again. The point is we constantly evolve — but when there is external pressure applied the progress is much faster. It’s no coincident that the fastest innovations in aviation happend around second world war. It took 123 years from the first air-plane-style glider (Sir George Cayley, 1804) until Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic ocean in 1927 but only 12 more years for the first jet engine to be flown in 1939.

So in history we know the bigger the pressure was, the more we progressed. But in my personal live I strive for stability and avoid uncomfortable situations. Totally understandable and stupid at the same time.

What I’ve changed

Back to those stormy times I told you about. I used to work at an intranet agency specialised in building mid-scale SharePoint intranets. From the beginning I was promised to be able to do interaction design and had already started my certification for it.

Reality looked different: When I started, I had agreed to temporarily fill the vacant web developer role. Mostly because it was urgent and I had the necessary skills. A year later I was still the full time web developer and had done zero UX. Probably because I knew what I was doing and it felt familiar.

I forced myself to leave that comfort zone by talking to my managers and expressing my discontent about not being able to design. They agreed and shortly after I had to conduct workshops with clients with little more then my 5 days of basic theoretical training I had over a year ago. Trust me, creating personas with our customers with basically no idea what I was doing felt uncomfortable. And exciting! And new! And gratifying! And alive!

It felt so good. From there on I started to deliberately put myself in situations just slightly outside of what I was already familiar with. UX projects started to trickle in and I my design skills and experience grew. Things started to look better for me. Unfortunately a year later the company had to undergo a major reorganisation and let go of most of my development team including me. I had several competitors reach out to me and offer me a safe job in the small and relatively protected intranet world. I refused and instead hired as an interaction design freelancer for a large insurance company. One of my concerns was that I’ve never worked in a company larger then 40 employees and I was unsure if I would fit in to this corporate world. But I signed anyway, because — why not?

After that project was over, I did not have a follow up project right away. So I decided to try my luck and applied for interaction designer jobs in Australia. I had some interviews but it didn’t work out. It was a fun experience though.

I had the opportunity of going back to an agency but instead I started to activate my network. This is something I’m not comfortable with at all. I’m more an extroverted-introvert and I don’t feel like I do a particular good job at net working. But I got lucky. A local industrial company I had previously worked for was looking for a designer/consultant to help align their company wide user experience across several projects. By now I had a fairly decent experience planning and conduction user research and doing interaction design, but I’ve never been responsible for anything of this scale. But I accepted the challenge because I knew it would improve myself. At some point I was even invited to present my ideas and my UX approach to the board of administration. I was nervous but it was received well, so 😊

Currently I’m on an assignment as a business analyst. If you’re unfamiliar with the industry a business analyst gathers requirements and typically the designer then crafts the wire frames and visual designs based on those requirements. So far I’ve only worked with BA’s, never as a BA. I’m still an interaction designer and will be. But it is important to me to understand the daily challenges my close team mates go through so I signed up for this BA project. A couple days ago I did the Product Owner Certification for the very same reason. If you wonder: its harder to be a BA then I thought, but I’m already learning new skills and I now have a deeper appreciation for a their work.

So far I can confirm that I have to place myself just outside my current comfort zone to be happy. Don’t get me wrong, this is hard some times. It can be frightening. And I failed. Along the way I made mistakes and I made people really angry because of them. But I’m progressing and developing myself actively and that feels so much more satisfying than my previous comfy life.

Has it gotten easier for me to leave my comfort zone?

No. And yes. For me there are two major motivations involved when I leave my comfort zone: The adventure of the unknown and actually reaching the goal.

If reaching an ambitious goal is my primary motivation I still feel very reluctant. Let’s be honest here: the probability of not reaching that glorious shiny throne of success is pretty high, right? So right from the start it feels like the stakes are at 100%! If I don’t get those first steps right, I’ve already failed the whole dream. This places all of the pressure on the beginning causing me to do doubt everything and not even start at all. I know this is not true, but it feels that way. And so I make up all sorts of excuses and while every day life happens the dream slowly fades to the distant “Ideas I didn’t follow through” list. (Items on the list include our around-the-world trip we’ve been dreaming of, some form of charity volunteering with our family or an own YouTube channel for families)

On the other hand, if my desire for the goal is high enough to overcome that initial inertia and build some momentum I tend to be more focused and have more determination in the long run. By now I know that once I’ve actually took that first leap of faith the initial pressure will eventually loosen. If I fail down the road I’ve at least reached 50% of my dream and that is 50% more than without making the first step. (e.g. my career as a designer)

On the other hand, if the unknown is what motivates me, there is far less mental risk involved. I don’t have to get every single step right in order to achieve something. Rather I just have to figure out that one step ahead of me and I’ve already succeeded (a bit). After that I’ll cross the next bridge once I get there. If, at some point, I don’t figure out how to proceed, I’ll just stop there and be fine. Since my mindset was “let’s try it and see where it leads me” I don’t have much to loose anyway. (I started woodworking and CNC milling to build furniture and toys)

The downside to this mental state is I tend to start a lot of things. And even if there is potential in them I often don’t finish my stuff. I assume this is because I lacked the real motivation from the beginning and one could argue that this was wasted time — or that I just had fun doing stuff. I guess both is true. (I love wedding photography but I don’t pursue it as much as I probably should)

Any advice?

From those two motivations I naturally choose adventure over reaching goals. Starting something and figuring it out while I’m going is more full filling to me then actually finishing stuff. Once I reach that moment in a project where I know it will work I often loose my interest. This is just how my brain works, yours might be different. Thus you can’t just take my game plan and apply it to your life. But here are some tips that work for me and you might want to try out for yourself:

  • You’re okay as you are! For very long I thought I have to be well-organised and goal-oriented to succeed in my job. Until a recruiter told me there is a demand for somewhat chaotic people like me who love that initial challenge. Since then I don’t treat my personality as a weakness anymore but instead market it as one of my strengths. Go find your niche!
  • I’m still human and I don’t leave my comfort zone just for the sake of leaving it. I need a reason to do so. For me if I sit down and think about why I’m taking the risk it makes leaving my comfort zone easier.
  • Find out what gets your endorphin flowing: success, fun, a dream, adventure, excitement... It all boils down to knowing what helps you to take those important first steps and then actively looking for matching opportunities.
  • Don’t go free solo climbing right away — put yourself in slightly uncomfortable situations first. The more you succeed with smaller things, the more likely you are to take bigger risks.
  • If you’re not ready to take the leap yet, don’t be harsh on yourself. Fear is not a bad thing, it prevents us from doing stupid stuff. Put the idea aside and keep it in the back of your head but don’t trash it completely. There might come a time and place for it.
  • Have fun while leaving your comfort zone. Especially if you’re very insecure in a particular area. Just doing it without expecting any results sets me free. For example my singing isn’t particularly melodious :). I don’t expect any return from it, but I enjoy it so I take the risk of others thinking it’s embarrassing.
  • My most important advice would be:
    I have to place myself deliberately in uncomfortable situations. It usually doesn’t happen by its own. So next time you encounter something just slightly outside the border of your comfort zone and your brains starts the “But, what if…” argument — go with your gut and tell your brain 
    Fuck that! Today I’m leaving my comfort zone” and just do it, no second thoughts.

Thank you for reading.

A Side Note
By writing this article I’m stepping way outside of my own comfort zone. It is my first personal article and honestly, I’m scared of putting my opinion out there for everybody to read and the potential criticism of my personal beliefs that might come with it. I really appreciate your time reading this and providing an honest feedback — even if you disagree with me :) 
Send me an email or let me know down in the comments what you think of it and if you’ve experienced something similar.