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The other day at my rock-climbing gym I watched a group of four young girls take an intro to rock-climbing class. They all started out nervous but followed the instructor’s direction when he asked them to each try climbing a section of the bouldering wall. Two of the four did pretty well, one did very well, and one got stuck at a challenging spot. Because of the general success of the group, the instructor then had them move up to more and more challenging routes. As the girls with more natural aptitude for climbing tried harder and harder routes with enthusiasm, I saw the fourth girl start to hold back and withdraw. Of course, this is all speculation, but I can only imagine she left thinking that rock climbing was not for her.
I found myself empathizing with her greatly because (a) I got stuck in that exact same hard spot a couple of days prior and (b) I recognized the feeling of assuming because I was not automatically “good” at something, it might mean that I would never be good at it. Part of this is an internal thought process- there are plenty of things that I am good at so when something feels a little more challenging, I wonder if it is worth the effort or if I should just stay in my comfort zone. But part of this is also an external problem- in the example I told above, the instructor was probably excited to see how well some of the girls were doing and so was choosing to focus on them and give them more opportunities and challenges.
This is a normal reaction and I think happens all the time. When there is an employee who is doing really well at work, it’s natural to want to spend more time with them and give them more projects, which then in turn helps them to grow and develop more. If there is a strong player on a high school baseball team, the coach will probably give them more game time, which is one of the best ways to continue to develop skills. On principle this might seem unfair, the best get better and the weaker are left on their own. But we are not here to debate the fairness or lack of fairness of events outside of our control. We’re here to recognize patterns and then adapt our behavior to help set us up for success and further self-actualization. In this case, that looks like taking charge of your own development and learning at your own growth zone.
So what does that look like? Let’s go back to rock climbing. I just started climbing with my partner fairly recently. At our gym, each route is labeled a level from VB for beginners to V0, V1, V2, and up. While my partner and I both started at VBs, he was ready to start trying V1s after a couple of sessions. I was not. At that point it would have been so easy for me to convince myself that I was bad at this and go back to activities I was more comfortable with. Or to push myself to start doing V1s, since maybe that was the level I should have been at by then. But instead, I kept working at the VB level and worked on building more comfort and confidence, especially in the parts of climbing that I felt most shaking at.
I am very in favor of pushing myself to do hard things, but when I push too far too soon, two things happen. First, I start to feel discouraged and lose the fun of whatever I am doing. I get huge pleasure and confidence from seeing growth and improvement in an activity. When I am trying something too advanced for what I’m ready for, I don’t get that virtuous feedback loop because I’m not really learning at that point, I’m just trying to push through.
Second, when I push myself too far too fast, I sacrifice learning proper technique that’s needed to really be successful. In bouldering, there is a moment where you get to the top of the wall and have to transition your weight over. My brain freaks out when this happens. But by staying on the VB beginning level for a while, I was able to gain confidence around every other part of climbing so I could face my fears of that moment face on. If I had skipped ahead, I probably would have just altered the route so I didn’t have to do that part which ultimately would hold me back from learning and mastering a fundamental technique. Once I mastered that growth zone, I was ready to take it to the next level armed with confidence and a stronger base of skills.
So how can this be applied outside of climbing? You can apply this in any area where you are learning and growing (which I hope you are doing a bunch of if you are reading this blog!). You want to find the sweet spot between too easy and staying in your comfort zone and too difficult, right where you are stretching yourself to a level that is possible to achieve with focused energy and effort. Good teachers, bosses, and mentors will help you find this, but I encourage you to explore this on your own as well. So much of how we learn in school and work is prescribed to us, so exploring your own edge and intentionally stopping at it can be an underdeveloped skill. It takes a little more time, attention, and patience than following a structured four-week program or semester long class, but it will likely also be more rewarding and effective. It’s very individualized and ultimately, you are the only expert at finding and exploring your own growth zone.
Have you had times in your life when you have pushed yourself too far too fast? Or where you are staying in your comfort zone? I’d love to hear what strategies you have taken to find that sweet growth zone in between the two in the comments below.
Take Action! Pick one area in your life where you are looking to break out of your comfort zone. Write down a couple of strategies you could take to slow down your own learning to find your growth zone so you are able to see regular improvement and master the fundamentals before moving forward. Try committing to these strategies for at least a week and review how you feel about the area afterwards. For further reading, check out Carol Dweck’s work on the Growth Mindset.