Formation: Highway to the Learning Zone

As few weeks ago, one of my Kōtuku colleagues, Katherine Bosworth did a presentation at one of our video meetings about our comfort zones. Katherine explained a concept from George Ambler about the importance of stepping outside our comfort zones.

The idea is that we only learn, grow, and develop our capabilities when we step out of our comfort zone.  In order to accomplish this growth, we need to move into the learning zone (we also need to be careful not to enter the danger zone, that area where we’re over-stretched, stressed, and unable to actually lead.)

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Her presentation was great, and got me thinking about comfort zones, learning zones, and danger zones. (It also got me thinking about the Kenny Loggins song from Top Gun, but that’s another story…)


I think I loved Katherine’s talk so much because I related to quite strongly. The comfort zone is so nice and lovely and well, comfortable, it’s where we might instinctively like to stay. It’s a place where we feel in control, where we feel confident in the set of skills and behaviours we have and depend on. But usually nothing really new happens in the comfort zone, it’s a place of auto-pilot, of going through the motions, maybe a place you’re stuck. It’s hard to learn new things, and even harder to grow and challenge yourself if you stay in your comfort zone.

Katherine’s presentation came back to me again last week when I reflected on a couple conversations I’d had and things that had happened at work.

At work we have a great programme we’ve been doing this year we’ve called “professional curiosity.” Every couple weeks, each team, or person from the team, takes a turn selecting a topic or reading to discuss, then those who are interested come along to a discussion. As someone who enjoys keeping up professionally and hearing what others are thinking I love these sessions. But last week’s was especially interesting because the topic was professional development generally and it attracted a large and engaged group. We discussed the need for funding to travel and meet our colleagues around the country and internationally, opportunities to present our work at conferences, and attend workshops and other trainings that aren’t available in Wellington. But we also discussed the kinds of professional development that aren’t about traveling somewhere, but are about putting yourself out there, and making an effort beyond the business as usual part of doing our jobs. These are often the professional development activities that can have a significant impact on our own growth and development, and they’re usually the kinds of developments that put us outside our comfort zone.

For me, a significant amount of my professional development hasn’t happened at those international travel and training opportunities, but in the work prior to those, where I had to step out of my comfort zone, stretch myself and learn something new. It’s those moments at work when I noticed something I wanted to learn or identified a project I wanted to get involved in and swallowed my fear and asked to get involved, proposed a project, or asked someone I didn’t know that well for help or advice. Ironically, I think it was all that on the job development, that made it easier for me to find support and funding for some of the farther afield professional development opportunities, then those opportunities broadened my horizons further and prepared me for the next steps.

One of the other valuable professional developments for me has been my involvement with professional associations. Over the years I’ve found myself doing everything from designing my first website while in library school for a student group, to organizing and leading a silent auction, helping develop and organize workshops, being on conference programme committees, editing journals, developing projects, to most recently chairing a regional committee and sitting on a national council. None of these were activities where I knew what I was doing when I started. They all required some degree of stepping outside my comfort zone, but they have also been amazing learning and development opportunities. And maybe most importantly over time and with practice I’ve gained some skills and become more comfortable being in an uncomfortable place.

When I was a student and first starting out in the library and archives profession I used to think that all the people who seemed to know each other and were involved in all the activities where in some sort of special club, and that you had to wait until someone invited you to join. But the truth of the matter is that was probably an invention and defense mechanism on my part. As soon as I volunteered to be a member of one committee I was welcomed on board. In almost all of my subsequent opportunities it’s been through putting my hand up in one way or another, even if it was scary asking to be involved, and even if I really didn’t know what I was doing when I started.

That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking more about recently. I think we (or at least I) want things to be easy. We kinda want to wait for someone to invite us to be part of an activity, to tell us we’re ready to step up for the next challenge or opportunity, to explain to us how to go about accomplishing our next goal. Part of growing is being able to step back and figure out the steps you need to take to get where you want to go and not waiting until some magical third party tells you what to do. In many ways once we have been successful at something, once we’ve developed a bit of a track record people will start asking you to be involved, or suggesting you for new opportunities, but if you really want to grow, and you know what capabilities you need to develop, you can’t wait for someone to hand them to you. You’re the only one that can do the learning and growing and it does appear that the only way you can do that is stepping outside your comfort zone.

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This is especially true if we’re trying to lead, or learn how to lead. Hopefully we want to lead because we want to make a difference. We want to lead because we want to make things better, to be effective, and that means to some extent we need to learn how to do something new or differently, something that not everyone will support straight away. The only way we’re going to get comfortable with that is paradoxically learning to be comfortable leaving our comfort zone, testing our edge, and getting used to discomfort.

Sometimes I’m a bit bemused at myself that it’s taken me so long to figure this out. Or that I was so worried about wanting to be completely ready, completely accomplished before I set myself a new challenge. I’m also aware that there are both personal and structural social and cultural reasons for at least some of this, which is one of the reasons that I continue to take inspiration from and connect myself in anyway I can to projects like Tusk and Kōtuku. Being in a place of discomfort is easier if you at least know there are people supporting you. This year so far hasn’t always been comfortable, but I have been growing and learning, and honestly how can we create change without that?

Jess Moran