Creatives are some of the most capable people I know—which is why it always baffles me to realize that many creatives struggle to break out of their comfort zones and try something new.
And yet, I see it over and over again. All too often, creatives—the people who thrive on originality and appreciate breaking the status quo—keep themselves firmly inside “the box.” They limit themselves to one type of work, one program they use, one area of design. They don’t just get stuck in a rut; they put themselves there.
Why leaving your comfort zone is important
If I’m going to convince you that leaving your comfort zone is important, we first have to talk about why your comfort zone is so…well, comfortable. I’ve found that creatives love their comfort zones because:
- They’re afraid of failure. No one sets out to fail, but aiming to fail is very different from embracing failure when it happens. Learning to accept or even embrace failure is something that many creatives struggle with. And if you do whatever you can to avoid failure at all costs, you’re only going to do work you’re comfortable with.
- They want to do what they’re good at. If failure is the stick, accomplishment is the carrot. Creatives love praise (who doesn’t?) and it’s tempting to only do work that will earn you that praise—work that you’re comfortable doing.
- They’re perfectionists. Some people think of creatives as “messy” or “disorganized.” That might be true, but I’ve also found that many creatives are also perfectionists, at least when it comes to their work. If it isn’t going to be perfect, they think, then it’s not worth doing or submitting.
Chances are, your comfort zone serves you in some ways. It’s not a bad thing to want to do work that makes you feel successful, safe, and competent. The problem comes when you use your comfort zone as a crutch, or worse, a ball and chain.
Why you should try to leave your comfort zone
How exactly does your comfort zone end up holding you back? Why is it important to break through that comfort zone and try something new?
- Failure helps you grow. Failure isn’t fun, but it also isn’t purposeless. It propels you to try again, to try a different way, to stretch your thinking. If you never failed, you would never grow.
- You can do more than you think you can. Like I said, creatives are some of the most capable people I know. Most creative people are capable of so much more than they think they are, but if they never try something new, they’ll never figure that out.
- Perfectionism hurts. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do great work, but giving in to perfectionism is going to leave you feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. After all, there’s no such thing as “perfect.” Perfectionism is linked to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, not to mention low self-worth.
How to break through your comfort zone
Breaking through your comfort zone is going to help you create a happier life for yourself. So how exactly do you get yourself to leave that comfort behind?
Identify your comfort zone
If you’re going to break through a barrier, it’s helpful to know where that barrier is, what it looks like, and how strong it is (do you need a battering ram or a nail file?).
What sort of work exists within your comfort zone? Why is it comfortable for you? Can you think of ways it’s holding you back? Is there something outside your comfort zone that you’d like to try (if you were brave enough?).
Take a minute to answer these questions, and to get a clear picture of what your “comfort zone” is. Once you understand that better, you can better prepare yourself for stepping outside it, and you can be deliberate about your choice to do so.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
Discomfort isn’t fun, but as we discussed above, it’s necessary for a happy, fulfilled, creative life. If you can learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, you’ll be more willing to step outside your comfort zone and try new things.
Here are some quick tips that might help you learn to be okay with discomfort.
- Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Feel the feelings, learn the lesson, forgive yourself, and move on.
- Take action. Not sure what to do? Just do something. Refuse to overthink or over analyze. Take action quickly, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
- Fast. Go without food for a meal or two, occasionally. Depriving yourself in this way teaches you to persevere through hardship. (The stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger was famous for what he called “voluntary deprivation,” which involved going without food, sleeping somewhere other than your bed, etc., in the name of practicing discomfort.)
- Stop making excuses. Don’t allow yourself to make excuses that will pull you out of discomfort. Push through it. Feel the discomfort. Recognize it as temporary and, in the long term, beneficial.
- Laugh. Laughter can help break tension and release feel-good chemicals in the body. Instead of an inner dialogue focused on how you’re doing everything wrong, learn to laugh at yourself. Find the humor in difficult situations.
When you can learn that you don’t have to avoid discomfort at all costs, you are much more likely to face and experience it. Discomfort isn’t going to kill you; in fact, it might be the key to getting you where you want to go.
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
This is a powerful question—one that has pushed me outside my own comfort zone more than once. Yes, it’s a little disconcerting to think about the worst-case scenarios, but once you realize how unlikely they are to actually happen, this exercise is strangely calming.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re asked to give a presentation at work. You hate public speaking, but you also know that this presentation could be your ticket to that promotion you’ve been working for.
What’s the worst that could happen?
You could forget to wear a shirt that day. You could leave all your notes at home. Maybe you’ll stand up in front of everyone and freeze. After they stare blankly at you for a few seconds, they’ll start laughing, and you’ll run out of the room, crying. You’ll be fired and you’ll have to move away.
It might sound a little ridiculous, but the worst-case scenario often does.
Once you’ve outlined the worst possible things that could happen, you can step back and think about the likelihood that those things will actually happen.
You’re probably not going to forget to wear a shirt, but it is possible that you leave your notes at home. You might freeze at first, or stumble through the beginning of your presentation, but is your audience really going to laugh at you? Probably not. And if you don’t do a stellar job, are you going to be fired? Or will you just not get the promotion?
Now that you’ve pictured the worst, any alternative doesn’t seem as bad. Plus, you’re able to see that the less extreme scenarios are far more realistic.
Think of the worst first. Once you do, everything else will seem mild in comparison, making even the space outside your comfort zone seem a lot safer.
Adopt useful thoughts and beliefs
If I could drill an idea into anyone’s mind, it would be this: you have control over your thoughts. You have the power to design, shape, and guide your thoughts, and your thoughts have the power to design, shape, and guide your life. Basically, if you can adopt the right thoughts, you can create whatever kind of life you want to create.
I’ve written a manifesto for creatives that encompasses the thoughts and beliefs creatives should adopt if they want to live happier, more meaningful lives. These beliefs help creatives to unleash their inner dragon—the fierce creativity that’s inside them—and make big changes in their lives and in the world.
The Design.org coaching program is also an incredible tool for helping you learn how to control your thoughts and use them to your advantage. Personalized coaching messages help you design thoughts that will serve you, and put them into practice in your daily life. You can get started with the free coaching program by taking the Design.org assessment.
I’m currently teaching myself how to play the piano. It’s…frustrating (to put it mildly). However, it’s also helping me practice patience. Why? Because no matter how much I might have wanted to, there was no possible way for me to sit down on day one and play “Clair de Lune.” I’ve had to work at it slowly, gradually learning one chord after another until I have enough to piece a song together. (I can now play a mean “Stand By Me,” thank you very much.)
Can you really expect to go from a couch potato to a marathon champion, without training? Can you bypass the inevitable learning curve of new software? (I’ve been using Photoshop for over 20 years, and I still don’t know how to do everything.)
Learning to break through your comfort zone requires patience, because it’s hard. The things you do outside your comfort zone require patience, because they’re new (and probably also hard). The more you can learn to be patient with yourself, your own shortcomings, and your own learning pace, the better you’ll be at stepping outside your comfort zone to try something new.
Don’t rely on default settings
There’s a dual meaning in this tip. First of all, don’t rely on your own default settings. Don’t let yourself run on autopilot. That’s how you get burned out, bored, or just plain depressed.
Second, and even more applicable to getting you out of your comfort zone, is not to rely on the default settings in whatever new thing you’re trying. When you’re trying to learn something new, step away from the templates and the “auto” settings. Get your hands dirty. Make mistakes. Try new things and see what works and what doesn’t. You’ll learn much quicker as you do.
When you learn not to rely on default settings, you can build confidence in your own ability to learn new things. You can flex your creative muscles as you put your own spin on your projects (instead of letting autocorrect do it for you). And you can see just how rewarding stepping out of your comfort zone can be.
When you learn how to break through your comfort zone and try something new, you invite creative magic into your life. You realize that while your comfort zone may be comfortable, the world outside your comfort zone is exciting, challenging, joyful, vibrant, and full of possibility.
Step outside. The water’s fine.
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