We’ve all had those projects that fill you with dread and nerves before they’ve even started. Your voice inside is saying I can’t do this. How did I get this role/project when I know I can’t do it.
We want to be in our comfort zones, that safe, predictable place where we can work, hang out, and even snuggle up in. While we love our comfort zones, if we continue to stay there, we will hit a limit in how much we can learn.
The most dramatic learning and growing often happen when we step outside of that comfort zone.
I became self-employed almost three years ago, and in doing so, I quickly learned that I had to also be self-motivated to learn. I didn’t have a boss to keep me on track with my long term goals or push me to learn something new, I was going to have to do that myself.
The projects that have taught me the most are often the ones that made me feel the most uncomfortable, even anxious. I’ve hated the lead up to projects when I know that I’m going to be uncomfortable, whether it’s because I’m in a new kind of role or different environment.
But there’s a funny correlation I found between being uncomfortable and the post-project payoff.
My anxiety was high, but so was the emotional payoff. Maybe it’s the pride in learning that I could do something that I didn’t think I could 100% do before. Or it also could be the rush of relief that I made it to the other side.
Looking back, my favorite projects are the ones that made me a little uncomfortable before I started. I hated the lead-up but the aftermath definitely made the pre-stress worth it.
I’ve wanted to give those challenging but worthwhile projects a name and one word I kept coming back to was jungle gym.
Find your mental jungle gym
As kids, we used to run around on the playground, challenging each other to run faster, jump farther, and even climb higher on the playground, especially on the jungle gym. As we get older, we need to keep those mental muscles strong by climbing on our own mental jungle gyms. Your jungle gym could be anything that pushes you out of your comfort zone.
For some, it could be creating art or music, trying public speaking, adopting a new pet, taking a long bike ride, gardening, or even volunteering. It just has to be something that challenges you mentally and pushes you out of your comfort zone.
For me, I’ve found I have two mental jungle gyms: my work as a freelancer and my workouts. I like to go to group fitness classes, where I can turn my brain off and just follow the workout of the day. Often, I see workouts on the board that I can’t possibly imagine finishing. And yet somehow with the coach and rest of the class, we do. And the feeling after those hard, mind-bending workouts always seems to be that much higher than the workouts that don’t scare me just a little before we start.
It’s that same adrenaline rush and satisfaction I feel after a work project that I was nervous about but was able to complete.
Now, scaling a jungle gym isn’t easy and if you go back your childhood years, the reason you might have been able to run faster, jump farther or climb higher was that someone else challenged you to do it. Or maybe your friend did it first and now you want to be like them. Or even it’s because someone said there’s no way you could do it and you wanted to prove them wrong.
So how do we continue to push ourselves today, as adults, on our own mental jungle gyms?
Assemble your tribe
Not everyone can do it alone. You might just need one other person or an entire squad to get you there. It’s up to you.
In my work, it often takes one person believing in me to get me through. Well, maybe that and a few other friends to deal with my anxious rants in the lead up to the project. But with some of the most challenging projects, I realized that it just took one person who I respected to believe in me and give me a chance to do something new.
Find people who believe in your abilities and others who will listen and provide constructive feedback when you have your doubts. It’s great to go with your gut but having a sounding board or two can help push you out of your safe, predictable comfort zone.
Write it down
Whether it’s writing down goals, breaking it into smaller steps or just keeping a record of your progress, writing can help make your mental jungle gym feel real. You could even just list out all the reasons you’re feeling anxious about attempting your mental jungle gym.
I like to write my workouts down in my calendar to ensure that I go. I also record my results with the rest of the gym members on an app. These two records help keep me motivated and show me my progress over time.
No matter the reason, take time to write about your mental jungle gym. Schedule piano lessons or studio time to work on your art. Attend community talks about a topic you’re interested in or create a list of charities you want to volunteer with.
Change it up
And as you get better and better on your jungle gym, you need to be sure to change it up. You’ll be surprised how quickly things that make you uncomfortable can become comfortable.
To make sure that you keep challenging yourself, keep evolving your goals and building out your jungle gym. Maybe you try to climb to a higher rung on the same jungle gym or maybe you find completely new one. There’s no limit to how many jungle gyms you can have as long as you’re continuing to push yourself.
Accept it’s a Work in Progress
This is the part that I struggle with the most. I’d like to say that as you push yourself out of your comfort zone it will become easier. Maybe by a little bit each time but I still get anxiety and I still have doubts when a new kind of project comes my way.
How do we work to say yes to that when our subconscious or conscious brain always wants to say “No, I can’t do that.”
But it gets easier with time. As your uncomfortable becomes comfortable, you’re expanding your comfort zone and building confidence in your ability to try something new.
And the next time a boss, client, or coworker challenges you to reach for that next rung, you might be able to reach for it a little faster than before.
Logan is a freelance event manager and to-do list maker. She loves reading and listening to podcasts, which she credits for her interest in writing and telling stories. After five years in China, she relocated to Seattle, WA where she continues to drink too many cups of coffee, grow her love for CrossFit and sports, and search for the best local food (in Shanghai, it’s jianbing — a Chinese breakfast pancake — yum). Connect with Logan on Instagram and LinkedIn.