I was already stressed as we navigated around Myanmar. When we got to the airport for our flight from Yangon to Bagan, we realized the airline on our tickets didn’t exist.
That’s right. There was no airline by that name in that country.
It was a frustrating experience, but it was also an opportunity to grow.
Growth happens when we’re uncomfortable
Growth happens when we’re sitting in a client meeting, answering questions that make us squirm.
Growth happens when the settlement discussion goes poorly and we realize we have to go forward with our hearing – ready or not – which wasn’t part of the plan.
Growth happens when the judge asks a follow-up to the follow-up to the follow-up and we reach the limit of our preparedness.
If you aren’t uncomfortable at least some of the time, you’re not growing. You’re stuck.
If you’re comfortable, you better be happy in that spot, because you’re likely to be there for a while.
New things are always uncomfortable. It’s rare that new things fold into our lives effortlessly. There’s a learning period for everything. We crawl, then we walk, then we run – that’s the nature of the game.
I have a lawyer friend who quit his painting class after the first lesson. He said he wasn’t good at painting. He was frustrated and embarrassed. He was uncomfortable.
I have another lawyer friend who quit her Spanish class after several lessons. Others were moving faster. She wasn’t getting it. She wanted it to come easily. She was uncomfortable.
Neither of those people could bear discomfort, so their growth stalled.
My traveling often leaves me uncomfortable.
I once went to a bakery in Cairo three mornings in a row, just watching from a distance. The bakery was chaos. It was packed with a hundred people.
I couldn’t discern the system. People would stand in one line, then move to another line, then back to the first. I never did figure it out.
The baked goods looked fantastic, but I was confused about the whole process. I was uncomfortable because I didn’t know the language or how to ask for help.
I gave up and walked away empty-handed. The outer limits of my comfort zone walled me in, preventing growth.
Discomfort is part of learning
We either become comfortable with discomfort or we stop growing. There’s no way around it. Discomfort is the way forward.
It’s easy to grow when we don’t have a choice. When circumstances create discomfort (like a nonexistent airline – nothing we could do about that), we grow because there’s no other option. We learn and improve, but that only happens because we found ourselves trapped.
Sure, we learned something, but only because we couldn’t walk away.
Most of the time, however, we can avoid discomfort. We can escape the opportunity for growth.
When Lisa and I walked into the Yangon airport, we were early for our flight to Bagan. We pulled out our tickets to hunt for our airline. There was no signage, no check-in desk, and no personnel present for the airline.
There was no sign of our airline because (and we still have no idea how this happened) our airline didn’t exist. Thankfully the information clerk found us a pair of seats on a different airline.
It was an alarming scenario, but we consciously decided to stay calm. We didn’t have any choice in that situation. We were thrown into discomfort.
In fact, we have had a lot of uncomfortable moments traveling.
We’ve had awkward SIM card purchases in mobile phone stores. We’ve had stressful ATM cash machine problems. We’ve had weird gas station interactions which I still don’t understand. Of course there has been odd food, unusual greetings with lots of kissing, and painful moments with children asking for money.
Our travel is one uncomfortable moment after another. That means we’re always growing.
But for the most part, our growth has come unexpectedly. There’s usually no way to avoid the discomfort, so we’re forced to grow and keep moving. In our case, growth happens by virtue of circumstance. It’s not calculated.
Faster, steadier growth requires deliberate thought and effort. To grow right now will require commitment on your part. You have to push the envelope, step out of your comfort zone, and learn new things by having more experiences, encountering more obstacles, and overcoming more challenges.
These are some fast-track growth strategies. Take these steps to move forward, step out of your comfort zone, and grow. These prescriptions will move you forward, faster.
1. Take the exam
Each practice area has its own way to level-up. Maybe it’s the exam to become designated as a specialist. It could be a required test to join a professional organization or to become a “fellow” or whatever.
You’ve considered taking the test, but you’ve put it off. You’ll have to study, plus there’s the risk of failure.
Do it anyway. You’ll learn so much. You might fail. But you might pass. And you’ll grow regardless. Feel that discomfort surging as you consider signing up? Yep, that’s a sign that you’re headed in the right direction.
2. Go to the seminar
There are seminars and workshops just outside of your arena. They might be designated as “advanced” or aimed at people who already know the subject. They might be expensive or they might be filled with people who aren’t like you.
People might wonder why you’re there. You’ll feel out of place. You’ll worry that they know you don’t get it – yet. Go anyway. Show up, sit down, and get comfortable with your discomfort.
3. Volunteer to help
Step up even if you’re not ready. In fact, be sure you’re not ready.
For some, that might mean offering to help build a Habitat for Humanity home, or some other cause. For others, it might mean volunteering to help with an appellate argument. Jump in even if you’re not ready, and do your best.
I took on some Hague cases, seeking the return of abducted children in Federal Court. I was way out of my element. Doing that work expanded my comfort zone in a big way. I’ll never forget the moment I spoke sharply to the federal judge and he responded even more sharply. It was a growth experience.
4. Tell others about your goals
Exposing our ambitions is uncomfortable. We like to keep our goals to ourselves. We don’t want people to think we’re getting too big for our britches and we’re afraid they’ll know if we fail.
Do it anyway. Reveal your goals for your practice. Share specifics with friends, colleagues, and family. Tell people where you are and where you seek to go.
Let go of the privacy. You’ll be surprised at the support you receive and how quickly your comfort zone expands.
5. Accept the case
You’re uncomfortable saying yes. It’s more than you can handle. You’ll have to work like crazy to learn. You’ll spend hours uncompensated. The anxiety will consume you. Do it anyway.
6. Offer to give the speech
Speaking is stressful, even for lawyers.
As a young lawyer, I remember speaking to a high school academic pep rally once. It was weird. I was out of my element. I was in a huge auditorium beneath a bright spotlight.
I couldn’t see the kids and half of the school board was on the stage with me. I was sweating profusely. It didn’t go well at all. But I grew from it.
Speakers are always needed for some event or another. I’ve spoken at volunteer appreciation dinners, award ceremonies, charitable events, bar association programs, and more. It’s pretty easy to get speaking gigs if you’re willing to work for free.
Speaking is good exposure for your practice. More importantly, it’s a growth experience. Each event takes you further from your comfort zone.
7. Try it again
I should do another academic pep rally. I blew it, and doing it again would be super-stressful. My arm pits are getting damp just thinking back to that horrible day. I should do it again because it would be good for me.
You should re-do the thing you failed, screwed up, or abandoned. You might fail again, but you only grow when you step away from your comfort zone. Get uncomfortable in order to learn and start getting comfortable in the new place.
8. Extend the invitation
Book breakfast, coffee, or lunch with that person who scares you to death. Seek out that high level official, business leader, or rock star you’ve been wanting to meet. Future lunch dates will look easy once you’ve pulled this one off.
Make the call to get the ball rolling. Haven’t you put it off long enough?
9. Ask for help
Many of us never ask for help. We hide our problems and our ignorance because we’re embarrassed. We want to project competence, so we never admit our struggles.
Reaching for help makes us feel week, vulnerable and diminished. What do we do? We struggle in silence so we can stay in our comfort zone.
Step out of the zone, ask for assistance, and get comfortable with ignorance. That small step will greatly expand your comfort zone.
10. Do that thing
Do that thing you’ve always wanted to do. Maybe it’s jumping out of an airplane. Maybe it’s robbing a liquor store.* Maybe it’s confessing your love to someone. Force yourself to do it. Accept that the feeling holding you back is actually pointing you right where to go.
Take the step forward. Feel the anxiety and fear. Get stressed, lose sleep, and do the work. Go.
Comfort zones are not growth zones
Sure, we need to spend some time in our comfortable places. We need to rest, lick our wounds, build reserves, and prepare to step back out.
But sometimes we spend too much time lingering in the comfort zone when we know it’s time to journey farther. We need a kick in the ass to take the first step. The second step is much easier.
Today, I am kicking you in the ass!
Go. Do it. Take the first step. Move forward. You’ll be glad you did even if it’s hard – especially if it’s hard.
Be embarrassed, feel the pain, notice your heart pounding, wake up at 3 AM and flop around. You’re growing. You’re expanding your comfort zone. You’re learning, getting better, and becoming more than you were before.
*Might I suggest, say, bungee-jumping as an alternative, if you're considering robbing a liquor store?