Author of The Slight Edge, Jeff Olson writes about success as follows: “We celebrate that dramatic discovery, the big breakthrough that catapults the hero into a new place. In other words, we buy lottery tickets.
The truth of breakthroughs and lucky breaks is that, yes, they do happen – but they don’t happen out of thin air. They are grown, like a crop: Planted, cultivated and ultimately harvested.”
“While ‘achievers’ in different areas from academics to career, sport, business and others may appear to have overnight success, the truth is their success is most often based on the accumulative (cumulative?) impact of continuous effort which pushes them just outside their comfort zone,” says educational and career expert from Boston City Campus & Business College, Natalie Rabson.
Our comfort zone is by definition, ‘comfortable’ – that happy place where we feel safe, unchallenged with our routines and other familiar factors. Operating in this space leads to unchanged performance or competency. On the other hand, setting impossible goals with ridiculous time frames can result in underachievement or burnout from pushing too hard. Brian Johnson calls this the snap zone, where just as an elastic band will snap when pulled too far, so too will we when pushed too far.
Mindfulness and performance expert, George Mumford who has coached basketball greats such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaq, to name a few, talks about the middle path – the area between the comfort and discomfort zone.
“While stress is usually perceived as something negative, in actual fact a certain amount of stress is necessary in order to evolve to a new level of competency in any field,” says Rabson.
Think of a matric student now entering a University like Boston – everything is unfamiliar, the environment, the teaching methodology, exams, the course material and new colleagues. It’s a very stressful event – yet everyone faces the challenges, step by step- and moves forward, making new friends, getting help from classmates, and getting through the exams. Why? It’s something we know we have to do to hold that degree in our hands in a few years. We have an end goal in site which is motivating. And we approach the challenges step by step.
“This ‘good stress’ or the eustress zone is where elite performers, academics and the like play,” says Rabson of the middle path where for example a challenging work assignment is neither too hard or too easy, pushing us beyond our current capabilities so that we learn and move to the next level without being so difficult that we ‘snap’.
In order to maximise performance, we need to move beyond our comfort zone to a place of optimal anxiety where we experience slightly higher stress levels than usual. This can be applied to any field or situation as follows:
1. Assess your current position or situation in terms of where you are now vs where you want to be.
2. Know that it’s going to take time. Don’t be fooled by the myth of talent or overnight success. Everyone has to pay the price of time and effort.
3. Breakdown your path into sections of manageable chunks where you tackle smaller tasks or sections.
4. Set aside study or work time to focus.
5. Be aware of your success at tackling the task and make the necessary adjustments to increase support.
6. Have patience.
7. Commit to doing it and feeling uncomfortable, knowing that stretching yourself is not always pleasant but you will develop greater competence as you continue.
“Achievement is the same for everyone. Keep in mind that the major barrier is often the emotional unease of not wanting to experience the initial discomfort,” says Rabson.
The trick is to reframe this discomfort and see it as a positive, necessary step to experience in order to achieve the end goal. As you move through your discomfort zone, you’ll find yourself feeling comfortable on the next level and the next, with a continuously evolving middle path,” concludes Rabson.