I once met two brothers, students in my class, who – despite having characteristics of introverts – were outgoing, friendly, and always willing to tackle new challenges. Having lunch with them one day, I discovered their secret. Each and every morning, as their mother sent them off to school, their mother said: “Do one thing today that scares you.”
We must realize that our brains are hard-wired, from the days of the cave men, to flee from danger. But in today’s society, where interpersonal skills are so highly valued, we need to learn to overcome fear. Otherwise fear prevents us from achieving, and it takes a far greater bite out of our life than we should permit it to do.
While not all fears should be overcome, many fears cause us to be anxious in social situations. To overcome these and related fears, each of us needs to seek to “expand our comfort zone.”
As you expand your comfort zone, you actually grow as a person to fill out these new boundaries.
If you have a larger comfort zone, and continue to push the edges of it out, you really do grow as an individual – you have more experiences, undertake more learning, and acquire more wisdom.
Understand the Need to Say “Yes”!
In the 2008 movie “Yes Man,” Jim Carrey plays Carl, who reluctantly promises to stop being a "No Man" and vows to answer "Yes!" to every opportunity, request or invitation that presents itself thereafter. While the result (in the movie) is both hilarious and, at times, moving, the movie is actually based upon a real experiment. In fact, after the movie, some individuals chose to say “Yes!” for an entire week. Here’s one blog post indicating the results: http://vladdolezal.com/blog/2009/my-real-world-yes-man-experiment/
If saying “Yes!” to everything for a week is too much of a challenge, then consider an alternative – calculated activities to expand your “comfort zone.”
For much of the past 30 years, I’ve taken on the challenge of expanding my comfort zone. Being a severe introvert, I first learned how to socialize at receptions and similar events (a skill I am still working on). I began to give speeches and presentations, first to small groups; this evolved into my current ability to give speeches to a several hundred or a few thousand people at various conferences without any undue nervousness.
Each and every one of us has her or his own “comfort zone.” Studies have shown that 40% of college students possess social anxiety – i.e., shyness. And the remaining 60% possess anxiety in other circumstances, such as public speaking, meeting someone new for the first time, etc. The truth is that each and every one of us can expand their comfort zone, significantly, over time. And college is a great place to undertake this effort.
Why do this? Life’s magic occurs largely outside your current comfort zone. If you want to suck all the marrow out of life, as I do, you need to be willing to put yourself out there into areas of “discomfort.” Then, as you adjust, you become more and more comfortable in those situations, thereby expanding your comfort zone, you actually grow as a person to fill out these new boundaries.
If you develop a larger comfort zone, and continue to push the edges of it out, you really do grow as an individual – you have more experiences, undertake more learning, and acquire more wisdom.
In short, you experience life more fully.
As an added bonus, when you interview for a job in your career field you will be a better interviewee, and job candidate. The better jobs go to the graduates who are more personable and well-rounded!
Rush Toward Your Fear!
I am deathly afraid of heights, and always have been. As a child, during a visit to New York City, I was very nervous about going up the Empire State Building, and even more so when my parents urged me to peer down from the observation deck to the streets below. My fear of falling was intense; and my parents could never get me to ride any roller coaster - regardless of how small or tame it may have been.
So at the age of 18 years, I faced a dilemma. I was in my first summer at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. I found out that on the summer cruise, in just a few weeks’ time, I would be required to climb the rigging of the tall ship, the U.S.C.G. Eagle, and to work aloft handling the sails.
While at the Coast Guard Academy I received instruction from a Boatswain's Mate, who had been in the Coast Guard for about a decade. He previously had served on the Eagle, and as he taught us various types of knots he explained where on the Eagle we might find a use for each one. As he was teaching several cadets and me the intricacies of tying a bowline (a type of knot), I asked the Boatswain’s Mate, with some apprehension in my voice, “How difficult is it to climb the Eagle's rigging?” The Boatswain's Mate paused from working the line in his hands, looked me straight in the eye, and simply said: "Rush toward your fear."
A few weeks later, my fellow swabs - that's what they called first year cadets - were flown to Miami, where we picked up the Eagle to take her on a week-long training cruise. So here I was, at the Port of Miami, aboard the docked ship, with my gear stowed. It was an early summer evening, and I was on deck, looking up at the three masts, the 10 yardarms, the crosstrees, shrouds, halyards, and all the other rigging. As I was looking up, contemplating my fate, the Officer of the Deck approached me and asked, "Want to go aloft?"
I imagine I turned white a bit, but just then I remembered what the Boatswain’s Mate had said. "Rush toward your fear." So I nodded to the Officer of the Deck, stowed my hat, and headed up the rigging. I climbed up the rope ladder, past the first platform and the lowest yardarm. I continued higher and higher, pausing every several steps to look around – and at times down to the deck, appearing smaller and smaller as I went higher and higher. Past two more yardarms, and finally I made it to the second and higher platform upon which I could sit, pause, and regain my senses.
But just then the Officer of the Deck shouted up, “Keep going. Touch the commissioning pennant.” I looked down, then up, terrified. The shrouds (lines running up and down) were very narrow at this point, and it was difficult to fit my big shoe in the rigging to go higher. But, keeping in mind what the Boatswain’s Mate had told me, higher I did go, the last thirty feet, and touched the commissioning pennant at the top of the mainmast, some one hundred fifty feet above the deck.
As I headed back down, I traversed out onto the footrope that hung beneath each of the yardarms. My big feet found each single footrope that hung beneath each yardarm with ease with a firm grip on the handrails affixed to each yardarm. I traversed out to the end of each yardarm, then returned back to the mast.
I also paused and sat on each platform, partly to rest and partly to enjoy the view. In the rays of the setting summer sun, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Not only had I climbed the rigging, far beyond the point where I ever thought I would, but I was the first among my classmates to do so.
From that day forward, I was known as a “rigging rat,” always willing to go aloft to furl or unfurl the sails.
A year later, I was aboard the Eagle for a longer summer cruise, this time across the Atlantic and back. When returning, just northwest of Bermuda, the ship encountered a low-pressure system. (A better description of the low-pressure system would be “minor hurricane” – although I was not convinced that hurricanes could be minor.)
It was the middle of the night. Cadets were not allowed on deck, except for the bridge crew. The Eagle was under sail, in seventy-five knot winds, with gusts up to ninety knots. Even though it was the dead of night, the sea was awash in white, as the wind and waves combined to brew a froth of whitecaps and foam atop the thirty-foot high waves.
That night I was on duty on the ship’s helm. I led a team of six cadets, on three connected six-foot ship’s wheels, as we sought to keep the ship on course. The Eagle did not have power steering, so turning the rudder, via the wheel, required a good amount of muscle applied by the six cadets.
Only the three lower sails on each mast were deployed that night, as the top two sails had long been furled in order to not strain the masts too much. Suddenly the gaskets that constrained the topsail to the yardarm blew out. This posed a dangerous condition – not only could we lose a sail in the powerful wind, but the stress being placed on the mast by the sail flapping in the high wind could cause it to snap. If the mast snapped, it could fall to and through the deck, even punching a hole in the hull of the ship. In short, the ship was at risk.
The Captain quickly sent an experienced enlisted man aloft to secure the sail. After twenty minutes, the enlisted man signaled down that he needed more line. The Captain looked around, spotted me on the wheel, and asked: “Rhoades, want to go aloft?”
I wouldn’t say that I wanted to go aloft in those conditions. But a request from your Captain was more like a very strong suggestion, and somewhat close to an order. So I headed down to the Boatswain’s Locker, measured out eighty feet of line, cut and spliced the ends of the line, and wrapped it in a coil. With the coil of line slung over my shoulders, I headed up to the deck, crossed to the side of the ship, and in a pause between the waves crashing over the ship's side, I then grasped the rigging and headed aloft.
The Eagle, though under sail, reeled from side to side and yawed fore and aft. Climbing the rigging was instantly a challenge, for as the ship careened over onto one side I found myself not climbing vertically, but rather at times almost horizontally, looking down at the deck. Then, as the Eagle careened to its other side, I hung on, for I would find myself hanging on to the rigging, looking straight up to the sky, with all fours – and even at times with my head seemingly below my feet.
Fifteen minutes of effort later, I finally reached the top yardarm. I left the rigging and traversed out onto the footrope beneath the yardarm. There I encountered the enlisted man – the very same Boatswain’s Mate who had taught me knots more than a year before. We looked each other in the eye, and he nodded at me, with a slight smile passing his lips. I nodded back, and then together we set to work, wrapping up the sail with the line and tightly securing it to the yardarm. Some thirty minutes later, we were back on deck, exhausted from battling the high winds and sea spray as we worked aloft. Yet it was a physical exhaustion only, for our minds raced as we recalled the journey we had together pursued during the past hour.
Rush toward your fear – or you will miss out on the great experiences in life.
Today I am still afraid of heights. But I have been on roller coasters since I was eighteen years of age. And I have gone up in many tall buildings (and even, at times, I have peeked over the edge).
If you are confronted with some fear, realize this. Whatever fear is facing you - whether it be the fear of meeting someone new for the first time, or the fear of public speaking, or some other fear in life - rush toward it. For once you are past it, life is great on the other side.
First, watch the following TedX talk, only six minutes long: “Measuring Comfort Zones” by Marcus Taylor at TEDxMelbourne. (6 minutes).
Then, for each of the next nine weeks, choose two activities each week from the list below. Choose those activities that scare you – i.e., those activities that expand your comfort zone. Please note that you may not repeat any activity.
At the end of each week, you should write down your progress in your journal. Schedule a reminder on your smart phone for the same day and time, once a week for nine weeks, to record your journal entries.
Your journal entries might start off in the following manner: "I expanded my comfort zone over the past week by undertaking two activities I would not have normally undertaken. For the first activity I … (Describe the activity. What was the result for you? How did it make you feel?) As a result of all of this experience, I have realized that …. For the second activity I … (Describe the activity. What was the result for you? How did it make you feel?) As a result of all of this experience, I have realized that …."
Here are the activities to choose from:
1. Eat something different – a food item you have not tried in at least a year.
2. Give at least three people compliments on any day, when you normally would not (counts as one activity).
3. Smile at (all) strangers, and say “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” or “Hi” to all the people you pass by, for one entire day – and wherever you are!
4. Get to sleep (bed) one hour earlier for four nights straight, and at the same time each night (this counts as one activity).
5. Speak up in a class – when you normally would not speak up.
6. Go to an on-campus event or which you typically would not go to, or engage in a new activity on-campus.
7. Thank a friend or family member for their ongoing support.
8. Tell someone they are loved.
9. Let go of your self-judgment for a day. And do something others would never think you would do. Feel good about yourself. If others think ill of you – they do not matter; they are no longer part of your personal universe.
10. Perform on Karaoke night.
11. Show three friends or acquaintances the benefits of the “Power Pose” and show them the video (Google search: “TedX Power Pose”).
12. Unplug your t.v. and video games for one entire week.
13. Use the writing center on-campus for assistance in reviewing the draft of an essay or paper.
14. Do your math homework in the math lab, seeking assistance when needed.
15. Ask for a tutor.
16. Form a study group, or join one, during the next seven days.
17. See a professor for guidance on “how to do better” in a particular class, or on a particular assignment.
18. See a professor for tips or career paths and/or “how to best network to find jobs or internships.”
19. Obtain counseling at the student health center to talk through a problem or to seek ideas on how to relieve stress.
20. Apologize to someone you have done wrong / admit you were wrong.
21. Write a “personal log entry” in which you forgive someone for a wrong done to you. Let go of bitterness and anger. Let go of a grudge. (Whether you choose to communicate your forgiveness to the other person is up to you, and dependent upon the circumstances.)
22. Perform three “random acts of kindness” in one day (counts as one activity). For ideas on random acts of kindness you might undertake, Google search the term “random acts of kindness.”
23. Go up to a stranger in a student dining or coffee shop area. Introduce yourself and ask him or her if you can ask them a few questions, for an assignment you are working on. Find out the person’s name, major or occupation, hometown, and what they like most and least about the college or the program they are in.
24. Change your group of friends (i.e., don’t “lie down with dogs”), or disassociate yourself over time from one friend who tends to drag you down.
25. Undertake a civic engagement activity with others.
26. Post a “success tip” once a day, each day, or your dorm room door or another place on campus, or on your social media page, for five straight days. Make certain you indicate below the success tip your identity, such as: “This success tip provided courtesy of (your name).”
OR ... CREATE YOUR OWN CHALLENGE. Just make certain the activity scares you!
These exercises can be powerful, if you approach them with an open mind and a view toward personal growth.
Prior comments received from students include:
- “Some students don’t really understand the point of these exercises. But, it’s teaching the confidence that you need to survive in the business world.”
- “As a result of all these experiences, I have realized how important it is step outside your comfort zone. I never realized how much you could be missing out on when you stay within your safe day-to-day routine. Although not every experience was a pleasant one I still enjoyed all of these exercises.”
- “I feel that doing things which are uncomfortable can make life more worthwhile.”
- “I know some of these tasks might come by easy to some people, but they were hard ones for me. I realize that stepping outside your comfort zone not only builds strength, but it also helps you realize things about yourself you would have never known if you didn’t do the unusual.”
- “I would do this project one hundred times over again.”
Dr. Rhoades also serves as a consultant to the Garrett Planning Network, a nationwide network of independent, Fee-Only financial planners making competent, objective financial advice accessible to all people. He is the author of several books, dozens of articles, and he is a frequent speaker at financial planning and investments conferences. He is the recipient of many awards for his advocacy on behalf of the fiduciary standard. Dr. Rhoades is also a member of The Florida Bar, and he practices estate planning and transfer taxation for select current clients.
Dr. Rhoades and his wife, Cathy, reside in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
To contact Dr. Rhoades, please e-mail: WKUBear@gmail.com.