If You Are Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You Won’t Learn

Ah, the comfort zone. We love it so much, and it makes us feel as cozy as our favorite pair of sweatpants. It is where we go to feel safe and secure, and it safeguards us from all the bad things that might happen to us every day. But the comfort zone isn’t all it is cracked up to be, and if you spend all your time inside of it, you are losing out on many opportunities in life, including learning and growth. You see, evolution and change do not happen inside this zone of comfort, so if you want to change your life and learn something new, you must find a way to break free or expand your zone.

Understanding How We Learn

Learning takes place when you are exposed to knowledge and skills that are new to you. But, it’s not enough for things to be novel; they have to be just out of your current reach. Imagine you are trying to learn Mandarin. You go to your first class, and everyone in the room is conversing in Mandarin, all the text you see on the walls and handouts is in Mandarin, and your teacher never uses anything but Mandarin to instruct you. How long would you stay in this class?

Chances are, you would not last long before you felt too frustrated that you quit trying. In this case, the learning was too far outside your current understanding. You had nothing to base your new language skills on, you had no point of reference, and the teaching was not scaffolded in a way that was appropriate for your novice understanding of the language. It’s too hard. You are not learning. So, you stop trying to learn.

The opposite is also true. When things are just as you expect them to be, are all familiar and easy to grasp, and when you quickly know all the answers to any question you are asked, you are not learning either. In this case, there is no expansion of your skills or knowledge. There is no incentive to try because everything is already known. This is your comfort zone. This is where everything is safe and secure, and you do not have to work or take risks.

Real learning that can transform you takes place somewhere in between these two scenarios. Learning happens when what you are trying to learn is just outside your current level of understanding, when it is beyond your comfort zone, but not so far that you get frustrated or feel unsupported in your learning.

Learning has to stretch the boundaries of your comfort zone and push you just beyond them, but it can’t go too far outside of this area, or your brain will be consumed by anxiety and newness that it can’t effectively process what you are trying to learn. Learning does require a small amount of tension or unfamiliarity, but too much quickly sends you into a tailspin of stress and negativity that shuts down your ability to absorb new information or take on new skills

Finding the Sweet Spot

The best teachers know that new learning needs to build on what you already know, should be supportive enough that it enables you to take risks without completely failing, and requires a certain level of background knowledge on which you will base your new understandings. And they also know that learning takes place in small steps that bring you incrementally closer to your learning goal. While getting it “right” 90% percent of the time or better may feel good, it is too close to your comfort zone, and only succeeding 60% of the time can wear you down pretty quickly. The learning zone is between these two, somewhere around 80%, and it close enough to your comfort zone that you can stay motivated but still be learning.

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