In my own life, I notice that I’m increasingly aware of the things I like and think I’m good at and the things I don’t like and typically am not very good at either. Over the years, especially when I was younger, I tried a lot of things and, based on that, gravitated to what I feel most comfortable with. This tendency, which I’m sure many recognize, is corroborated by research showing that as people age, their fluid intelligence, i.e. the ability to reason and think flexibly, decreases whereas their crystallized intelligence, i.e. the accumulation of knowledge, facts and skills, increases.
For many people I work with, this leads to a professional life where, over time, we end up in a comfort zone where we know we’re competent and can deliver. And because we’re competent in what we do, we build up reputation and respect among our peers. As human beings, we need to feel that we’re recognized and appreciated members of a community.
The problem is that, as the saying goes, your comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there. For people with a fixed mindset, who assume that things are immutable, at least later in life, their comfort zone is a place that they either like or accept as the immutable reality. However, someone who wants to be the protagonist of their own life will by necessity have a growth mindset and, over time, feel frustrated and bored in their comfort zone. The challenge is of course how to break out of that as going out of your comfort zone is naturally uncomfortable.
Psychology research has studied this topic for decades and one framework is the fear-learning-growth model. Initially, breaking out of your comfort zone will be associated with fear. Millennia of human evolution have created a natural aversion to entering unknown territory as it tends to lead to existential risks. Modern life has very few existential risks and the fear that we feel often is concerned with reputational and status risk. Simply put, we fear feeling like an idiot or, as it’s called in the military, a FUN (freaking useless noob). Especially after years of being competent in our role and being recognized for it, entering a situation where you’re a beginner and can use little of your crystallized intelligence and having to rely on your decreasing fluid intelligence can feel like a very tall order.
Once we break out of that, we can enter the learning stage. Obviously, this includes trial and error and a period where we’re learning the skills required for the new scope in which we’re operating. And this, in the end, results in growth as we’ll master new skills and gain new knowledge that we didn’t have when we started this journey.
To get out of my comfort zone, I use three strategies: edging, context switching and adopting the beginner’s mindset. In my work, I try to get to the edge of my comfort zone in terms of research and topics I take on. This means that I balance my previous experience, skills and knowledge with learning new skills and gaining new knowledge. An example is my efforts in building a new research field around AI engineering where I use my existing knowledge in software engineering and apply it to the field of AI, where I’m not an expert, to understand the engineering challenges around building AI-intensive systems.
The second strategy is context switching. Here, I go out of my comfort zone in my personal life. I try to build new skills and knowledge in areas that have nothing to do with work but that I still consider important in my life overall. For example, I’m currently in a program to become a volunteer weightlifting trainer at the gym that I frequent. Although I’ve done weight training for decades, I’ve never instructed other people how to do this safely and constructively. In my experience, it’s much easier to enter the student role in this situation as compared to my professional life.
The third strategy is concerned with the Buddhist principle of the beginner’s mind. We enter many situations in our work and the rest of our lives with a host of preconceived notions. This is of course what experience is all about, but it easily leads to what I refer to as the expert syndrome. My favorite definition of an expert is someone who tells you why something can’t be done. The beginner’s mind is concerned with entering situations with an open mind and as few preconceived notions as possible. Although perhaps a poor example, this is what I experience when I visit modern art museums or exhibitions. I try to limit my preconceptions as much as possible and connect with a piece as directly and experientially as possible. Of course, the result, more often than not, is that the art doesn’t connect with me, but at least I feel I’ve given myself the best possible chance to grow and learn new things.
In reinforcement learning, a class of artificial-intelligence algorithms, the system will learn the optimal behavior by, initially, randomly selecting actions and getting a smaller or larger reward. These algorithms seek to optimize the amount of reward they get and as they learn, they’ll reduce the amount of exploration, ie randomly taking action just to learn the impact on the reward, and increase the amount of exploitation, ie taking an action with a known reward. You easily end up in local optima if you don’t enforce a minimum level of exploration even when the algorithm has already tried out many actions before.
The same is true for human beings. We need to keep exploring outside of our comfort zone, even if the nature of exploration is that most of what we try out won’t lead to anything valuable. That will feel very wasteful, but it’s the only way to make sure we continue to grow and develop.
Our comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there. As the protagonists of our lives, we need to get outside of it to grow and develop. Even if it feels like a waste of time and energy. I do this through edging, context switching and the beginner’s mind, but of course, you can use your own strategies. It will involve fear and discomfort, but often it’s the thing you fear the most that you need to say yes to. As Neale Donald Walsch says: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”