When I was in my early 20s and navigating through the first years of my career as a PR professional, I remember very regularly (as in, nearly everyday) feeling that I had no idea what I was doing. There was so much on-the-job learning happening, at a quick pace, and so much I was doing for the first time. I was being invited into meetings that I didn’t understand and being asked to take lead on tasks I had never done before.
I didn’t dare let on how uncomfortable I felt in those moments though, and did my best to follow along, learn what I could by watching others, ask questions every chance I could, and eventually things started to make sense. My initial feelings of discomfort started to fade, as sparks of confidence emerged.
I suspect you might have felt this way at one point in your life too, if not in the present moment. That “I’m-in-over-my-head” kind of feeling that some people thrive on, and that makes others cringe.
It was not until years later that I came to appreciate the incredible benefit of those learning experiences and how essential they were (and remain) to our personal growth. I also learned then that the feeling I so often experienced has a name: The Learning Zone.
Developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the Learning Zone was made popular in the early 2000s by educator Tom Senninger, who applied the science to show how people learn best. To do so, he said, we must be challenged. But the balance between challenge and comfort needs to be just right, and here’s why:
If we’re not pushed hard enough, we’re likely to stay in our Comfort Zone. Being comfortable is not a bad place to be, but learning is restricted there. We don’t take risks when we’re comfortable and we fall into patterns when we’re comfortable.
Conversely, if we’re pushed too hard, we start to panic and find ourselves in a Danger Zone, which can cause increased levels of anxiety, frustration, and burnout. Being in the Danger Zone too long is not good for anyone, just as being in the Comfort Zone for too long isn’t healthy either.
Since those early career experiences, I’ve come to understand the value in testing my own boundaries— and in supporting my colleagues in testing theirs, too. While it might feel uncomfortable, we learn at our best when taking on experiences and tasks that feel on the outer edges of our Learning Zone. It’s those moments that can in fact be the most transformational, especially when we have the support of guides and managers who can help us when we need it most.
Bottom line: Consider where you’re feeling most comfortable in your work, and what you could do to push a little further outside of that zone. Challenge one of your existing routines, and what “changing it up” might look like. And while you’re at it, consider where you could give a colleague a boost in their learning by providing safe opportunities to test their own boundaries.
Learning, practicing, and excelling at anything requires that we start somewhere. And often, the best place to start is by finding your zone, and then testing your boundaries.
This is week 23 of the Finding The Words column, a series published every Wednesday that delivers a dose of communication insights direct to your inbox. If you like what you read, we hope you’ll subscribe to ensure you receive this each week.