“How often do you solve a problem that is almost beyond your capabilities?” A mentor posed this question to me 25 years ago and it has inspired me ever since. When I initially reflected on what he had asked, I was a bit flummoxed. My business was going well. I had the respect of my colleagues. I seemed to have a bright future. But . . . I wasn’t really growing. And as Lou Holtz used say, “If you’re ripe, you’re rotting.”
The truth is, I’ve remained a comfort-zone-based person, like most people. But I do take time to get outside of this comfort zone regularly. Sometimes it hurts, like the time I flew over the handlebars of a mountain bike at age 60. Other times, it has been exhilarating, like skydiving from 12,000 feet. As with any new experience, there is an initial feeling of discomfort. Our brains, of course, have a funny way of flooding our nervous systems with stress and our thoughts with catastrophic visions.
The same is true of emotional and intellectual adventures. If I approach that stranger, will I look foolish? If I accept a new kind of project, will the client discover I’m not up to the task? If I write a book, will anyone read it? If I speak up during a meeting of influential people, will they accept me as one of their own? The answer to all of these questions is, “I don’t know unless I try.”
Psychological researchers have found that we each have our own happiness “set point.” In other words, we tend to maintain a certain level of happiness, similar to a thermostat for your mental well-being. If we feel too sad, most of us will look for something or someone to help cheer us up. But . . . if we feel too happy, we start thinking “this is TOO good to be true. Something’s bound to go wrong.” The same thing happens when it comes to making decisions. When we’re faced with a serious problem that needs to be resolved, we find a way to work through it. But when the decision involves a great opportunity, our natural tendency is to sabotage it because it will take us outside of our comfort zone.
So, what to do? First, acknowledge that there will be discomfort associated with any stretch outside your routine. Expecting this phenomenon will diminish the impact. Second, compartmentalize the feelings as best you can. Work to focus on the positive outcome. Whether it’s saying a mantra, visioning what success looks like, processing the outcome with friends, or some other strategy, have a plan. A clear plan distracts you from worry. Third, research and prepare. If I get nervous before jumping out of an airplane, I remind myself, I am twenty times more likely to get killed driving to the airport. Fourth, work incrementally. Too often, we seek to take a giant leap when small steps toward the goal would be wiser. Fifth, seek accountability. Announcing to respected colleagues what you’re going to do is a sure way to get their support and their expectation that you’ll follow through. What better motivation then an audience?
Now, I’m off to take horseback riding lessons. Anyone want to join me?