It wasn’t the sea of faces that threw her off. In fact, Melissa Reardon spoke in front of an audience on a regular basis—in a swimsuit no less. Midway through college, she started teaching aqua fitness classes at her local wellness center, and her fun, contagious energy consistently drew crowds.
So when her Chemistry professor at Florida Gulf Coast University approached her regarding a position as a Student Partner assisting students using technology as a study tool, it seemed like a fairy tale way to make a little extra money. She accepted the role and started to prepare her introductory presentation. Though experienced in front of crowds, Melissa was anxious; she hadn’t delivered many formal presentations. And when the presentation day arrived, Melissa found herself facing a new challenge.
“When I got in front of the class, I realized that the majority of these students didn’t want to be there or listen to me. I was used to an enthusiastic audience—and this wasn’t it,” Melissa says.
Melissa’s experience is not uncommon. Even when we think we have mastered a skill, changing one dynamic can pull us out of our comfort zone, quickly turning a fairy tale into a horror story.
However, according to Management author Dr. Christopher Neck of Arizona State University, placing yourself outside your comfort zone is essential for personal growth. Neck states, “By staying within your comfort zone, you aren’t improving or changing; you fall into a rut. And your performance eventually declines because you don’t receive the same enjoyment from your work.”
If leaving your comfort zone is a good thing, then why do people avoid stepping out into the unknown? It causes stress, but Dr. Neck says that the key to mitigating this stress is to avoid taking on too much change at once. Enter the Goldilocks Rule.
The Goldilocks Rule proposes that people experience their highest levels of motivation when working on tasks that sit on the border of their current abilities—not too hard, not too easy, but just right. There’s a sweet spot, an area where you may or may not be able to achieve success that is particularly motivating to the human brain. This is where you should aim to be when you attempt to get out of your comfort zone. Dr. Neck provides the following steps to begin:
- Walk right in. Just like Goldilocks boldly stepped into the cottage, YOU have to make the first move to get out of your comfort zone. This starts by taking an honest look at your current strengths and weaknesses and identifying the areas where you’d like to grow. For some, this might be developing a new technical skill or pursuing a new personal or professional project that you may have avoided in the past because you just didn’t feel confident enough to tackle the work. For others, it might be a social skill like speaking up and presenting your ideas in a team meeting or reaching out and networking at a conference.
- Be nosy. If you’re ever to find that perfect chair, porridge, or bed, you need to be curious about what is going on inside of yourself. Identify what previously held you back from making this change, and go below the surface. Think about the stress affiliated with stepping out of your comfort zone—emotionally, physiologically, mentally—so that you understand what you need to overcome.
- Examine the fairy tale you tell yourself. The truth is that most of us aren’t as confident as Goldilocks. When faced with stressful challenges, people often tell themselves that they are not capable of succeeding; those messages are largely a manifestation of stress. The key is to pay attention to what you’re telling yourself so that you can actively change the messages you are sending. When your inner voice starts saying, “You can’t do this,” shut it down with, “I can do this.” Once you’ve beaten back the negative story by changing your self-talk, you will start seeing yourself as the conqueror of the challenge. Visualization is a powerful exercise. It truly helps you achieve the results you desire.
- Try it out. Call her crazy or call her courageous, but Goldilocks wasn’t afraid to take a chance. Channel your inner Goldilocks, and do what you set out to do. The outcome may not be what you expected, but you will grow—even if your first attempt is less than successful. Since you took the chance, you now have an opportunity to reflect on what you did well and what you can do differently next time.
- Stare down the bears. As terrifying as it might be, don’t be afraid to solicit feedback from others. Were you too hot, too cold, or just right? When people are invested in your success, they genuinely want to help you improve by offering suggestions. Self-criticism skews to the negative, while feedback from others is likely to reveal the real story. It can serve as catalyst for the next challenge, inspiring you to keep moving forward.
Melissa’s Fairy Tale Ending
When Melissa stood up in front of a class full of skeptical students, she realized she wasn’t confronting disaster. She thought quickly on her feet and retooled her message. Her goal changed from merely communicating instructional information to inspiring best practices. Students began to pay attention to her presentation and even approached her after class for additional support.
Melissa entered her Goldilocks zone. The experience gave her confidence in her ability to think fast under pressure. What challenges have you overcome by taking a step into the unknown? Share your experiences in the comment section below.
Melissa Reardon is a Biology major at Florida Gulf Coast University serving as a WileyPLUS Student Partner. She is planning to pursue a PhD in Biochemistry. She says her newfound presentation skills have given her confidence to deliver a top-notch senior presentation.
Dr. Christopher Neck is an Associate Professor of Management at Arizona State University. Author of 11 books and two WileyPLUS courses, his research specialties include self-leadership, leadership, group decision-making processes, and self-managing teams.
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