“Most of the good things that ever happened to me – both professionally and personally – happened after I finally took myself out of my comfort zone,” I found myself saying more than once in Silicon Valley last week. Sounds inspirational, but I’m a lousy Tony Robbins imitation.
I lack Tony Robbin’s fire but the getting-out-of-your-comfort-zone-to-grow is one of the few principles I know to be absolutely true. We can discuss other things, but this is not open to debate. If you stay in your comfort zone, your world and your opportunities will shrink. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
So let’s talk about comfort zones. My world, my social network is limited to software engineers and front-line engineering managers; so if you’re reading this post you’re almost certainly smart. You’re smart, and you’re surviving or thriving in the tech business. Your comfort zone is being as smart as you can be.
Smart people usually think before they act. This is the trait that got us where we are, so we think a lot. A L-O-T. Then we act a little. Then shoegaze, navel gaze, talk to some other engineers, think some more, then act a little more. Then reflect on the experience. This is where we’re comfortable. But it’s not an evil pattern. Many of my most effective, thoughtful, and conscientious consultants do this today too. In fact, I believe that thoughtfulness is absolutely key to developing high quality code and reliable systems. And it’s comfortable for us.
Here’s the problem for your career, however: you can’t think your way into leadership. Only stretching to do leadership work will turn you into a leader, which obliterates your comfort zone. For a software engineer who wants to be a manager or lead architect it might mean speaking up even when you don’t have all the facts, setting up code reviews and embracing the difficulties of those conversations, demoing a prototype despite the ambiguity and political issues, reaching out to authority figures, and/or a million other uncomfortable possibilities.
Put simply, you have to take a position that takes you outside your comfort zone. Notice how the loudmouths on the team tend to progress faster than the quieter, more thoughtful folks (up to a point)? Painful (and it is very uncomfortable, bordering on painful sometimes) as it is, humans only truly evolve from the outside in, not the inside out.
It’s this very “outsight” as INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra calls it, the outside-in, that makes the difference. It molds leaders. So take yourself out of your comfort zone. For more on this, read Ibarra’s book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader.
Act first. Think later.