Back in the Paleolithic Era, having a fairly small comfort zone probably made good sense. Fearless people likely got eaten by lions. But today's relatively lion-free environment makes hugging our comfort zones perilous and constricting. Our reasons for avoiding uncomfortable situations are as numerous as our tactics. But the short-term stress relief robs us of long-term opportunities. Sadly, just telling ourselves to get out of our comfort zones doesn't work.
Brandeis organizational psych professor Andy Molinsky has dedicated years to studying this conundrum, and published dense research project on the topic. Thankfully, this book avoids the scholarly jargon of such papers. Writing with business professionals, job interviewees, and students in mind, Molinsky crafts a nuts-and-bolts explanation of why we have comfort zones, why we should step outside them, and how to achieve that seemingly impossible goal.
Permit me to paraphrase Molinsky, without giving anything away, since he says everything better, and in more detail than I could. We have five basic mental justifications for our comfort zones: because whatever makes us uncomfortable feels inauthentic or immoral, may make others perceive us as incompetent or unlikeable, or it really shouldn’t be our responsibility anyway. Molinsky identifies these five causes from both academic research, and in-person interviews.
Once we recognize which principle, or combination of principles, hold us back, we have three tools available to re-stack the deck in our favor. Molinsky calls these tools Conviction, Customization, and Clarity. This means we believe whatever makes us uncomfortable still really needs doing; we can organize how we handle our circumstances to minimize discomfort; and we have enough self-awareness to face our challenges without them breaking us.
|Andy Molinsky, Ph.D.|
Molinsky puts his most important points in this book’s first half. Though he’s guilty of a little throat-clearing in the earliest pages, he mostly gets down to brass tacks, combining his measured principles with stories that serve as object lessons. His stories are often very personal, yet concise in structure, without excessive rumination. They demonstrate how people got out of their own paths and stopped being their own worst obstruction.
This isn’t a book of straightforward exercises. I admit being disappointed by that, as I’d expected something like Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct, which combines high-minded theories with road-tested exercises for beginners. Molinsky compares this book to a free-form recipe, where rather than fixed measurements, we have a broad outline of what the finished product could look like. We simply have to interpret freely, putting our stamp on the recipe.
Not that Molinsky prescribes no concrete actions. As a sometime writing teacher, my favorite involves describing your own situation, in writing, in third person. Crystallizing ideas into words, Molinsky demonstrates, frees people to act, besides having quantifiable physical health benefits, according to one of his sources. So we have concrete actions, just no step-by-step journaling procedures. That probably works better overall, but requires your effort to get started.
Reading this book, I see myself, and other loved ones besides. As we get older, as we own more stuff and have more responsibilities to family and community, our comfort zones contract. Mine has become strangling. But Molinsky demonstrates we needn’t risk everything we treasure, to venture outside ourselves. By understanding why we’ve become so risk-averse, and applying Molinsky’s Triple-C approach, we’ll find doors opening immediately.
This book probably belongs on the same nonfiction-as-self-help shelf as Malcolm Gladwell and James Duhigg. It has the same purpose of taking known, well-studied science, and turning it into actionable advice. But unlike those other writers, who attempt to disguise their self-help as journalism, Molinsky, a working research scientist, doesn’t pretend his advice is anything but advice. Like Daniel Kahneman, he comes right out and says: Do This.
I’m still working to incorporate this book’s advice into my thought processes. Because this book really is about me, and people like me, it presents an opportunity to stop my decline into stultifying comfort. If you’re like me, and you probably are, this book is for and about you. Please grab this opportunity to turn your life into something greater. I already feel energized, knowing this exists.