Harrison Ford was a carpenter before being casted as Han Solo in the “Star Wars” movies. Today, he is one of the world’s best-known actors and an enduring pop culture icon.
When Michael Jordan retired from basketball in 2003, he shifted to professional baseball and then to running his own business. In 2014, he became the first billionaire player in NBA history; he is also currently the 5th-richest African-American.
Finally, Sara Blakely was selling office supplies door-to-door when she got the idea for making shapewear; the company that she founded is now a household name — Spanx.
What do these people have in common? They all got to where they are now by stepping out of their comfort zones.
“A comfort zone is not a physical place,” says Monique Ong, co-founder and chairman of MindNation. “It is a frame of mind, a place where you feel comfortable and your abilities are not being tested.” In other words, comfort zones are comfortable, safe ways of living and working, usually in a set routine.
Staying in one’s comfort zone has its advantages — you have zero stress, you complete tasks faster, and you don’t expend as much mental energy.
However, it also has its drawbacks — you don’t learn new skills, become complacent, and even miss out on opportunities for growth.
“Growth only happens when you are learning, and learning only happens when you encounter something new,” Monique points out. “When you make changes and take risks, you transition and even evolve into someone better, and sometimes in the process you even transform those around you.”
Monique’s life has been all about expanding her comfort zones. After graduating top of her class from one of the most prestigious universities in the Philippines in 2000, she embarked on a storied career in Marketing for three Fortune 500 companies for over two decades, lived in seven different countries in the process, and even started her own business. But in June 2017, while on a business trip in Singapore, sustained a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). She spent 21 days in a coma and had to undergo three brain surgeries. When she woke up, she did not know how to eat, sit, or walk. Doctors told her that because of her injury, her brain was now only operating at 40% capacity. She was also diagnosed with aphasia, a disorder arising from a severe TBI that causes the patient to have trouble speaking, reading, writing, and understanding language. And finally, because of the swelling in her brain, she became blind in one eye.
“Changes don’t have to be big, and they do not have to happen overnight. By simply being creative, you can make small tweaks to your routine while you are on lockdown and already challenge yourself.”Monique Ong, MindNation Co-Founder and Chairman
Monique was told that with therapy, her brain capacity could improve up to 80% — at the most. But she refused to let doctors determine her fate; in her quest to return to her normal life, she challenged herself and those tasked to treat her. She demanded daily speech therapy, even if her therapists only suggested that she see them thrice a week. She also asked for homework, and spent every day answering grammar worksheets, writing in a journal, and practicing giving presentations. She even started a light boxing exercise regimen with her physical therapist. On top of all these, she resumed planning for her wedding, which would be held 11,000 kilometers away in southern France.
When she was tested by her neurologist six months after her accident, her brain was operating at 95%.
In 2019, she co-founded MindNation, an innovative mental health and well-being company that has grown globally as a trusted partner for organizations and communities alike. She is proof that if we step out of your comfort zone, take risks, and face challenges head-on, we can evolve our lives, relationships, and even careers into something better. “Maybe not right away, and definitely not guaranteed,” Monique cautions. “But at least there is that possibility.”
From the comfort zone to the growth zone
This is not to say that you do need to experience a life-altering accident to challenge yourself, or move to another country to experience taking risks. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it virtually impossible for us to have adventures. But all these do not mean we have to resign ourselves to a life of idleness and inactivity. “Changes don’t have to be big, and they do not have to happen overnight,” Monique advises. “By simply being creative, you can make small tweaks to your routine while you are on lockdown and already challenge yourself.”
Here are some of the things Monique does to continuously challenge her comfort zone even when she is homezoned:
Working out is synonymous with challenging yourself. Monique is currently working with a personal trainer online, even though exercising is one of the things that she doesn’t like to do. “Because of our one-on-one set-up, my coach is constantly focused on me, always telling me to squat lower or bend deeper. I hate it, but I end up learning that I can do things I never thought possible.”
For those who love exercising, one way to stay challenged is to change up your workout program from time to time. Don’t just brush off yoga because you think you’ll never be able to touch your toes or disregard strength training because it seems intimidating. Stepping outside your fitness comfort zone can help you spice up your routine, help break a fitness plateau, and even increase your motivation.
- Veer away from comfort foods.
Trying new dishes is one of the easiest ways you step out of your comfort zone. “If you’ve been having your meals constantly delivered like me, order a dish that you’ve never ordered before or that you think you’ll never like,” Monique suggests. “Or another from a different restaurant entirely. Even if you end up not liking the food, you are slowly training your brain to adapt to risk-taking. Next time, when you take on bigger challenges, they won’t seem so scary anymore.”
- Make lockdown date nights as close to real date nights as possible.
Before lockdowns happened, date nights meant dressing up, candlelit dinners at romantic restaurants, and evenings filled with meaningful conversations. But if you and your partner have been isolating at home 24/7 for more than two years now, there are ways to break this routine and rekindle the spark.
“When we order food on date nights, my partner and I make sure to remove them from the takeout containers and place them on real plates. We also use real utensils and bring out the formal glassware — even if we’re just drinking water,” Monique shares. “Finally, we make sure to dress up, sit facing each other at the dining table — not in front of the tv — and put our phones away for 2 hours so that we can have an honest-to-goodness conversation. These take a lot of effort, but in doing so we make the experience more meaningful.”
- Dare to have uncomfortable conversations.
“The pandemic has made talking to friends boring because there is no longer anything new to share,” Monique points out. “‘What’s new with you?’ ‘Nothing, I’m still stuck at home like you.’ So instead of asking people about their day during virtual catch-ups, introduce topics you never used to talk about, like world affairs or philosophical questions. These may be boring topics, but talking about them can help everyone learn something new and even take your relationship to a whole new level.”
- Expand your professional skill set.
Monique may be the chairman of a company, but she still blocks time in her calendar every day for strategic thinking and planning. This includes updating herself on what competitors are doing, reading up on industry trends, and holding discussions with the team to stay on top of issues and concerns. “By doing these, I grow not only myself but also the business,” she says.
Not a C-suite executive? You can still challenge your professional comfort zone even if you are a junior team member. “Take on an extra project on top of what you are already doing — being mindful of your own capacities and limitations, of course,” Monique suggests. “Another way is to enroll in that digital marketing course, for example, even if you don’t know the difference between ‘reach’ and ‘engagement.’ Or reach out to your manager and ask if you can schedule a short meeting, to get feedback and advice on your current path.”
“Investing in skills like these not only represent a new challenge, they can build resilience, foster creativity, refresh your confidence, and open up more opportunities than ever,” she adds.
At first glance, there is nothing wrong with choosing to stay in your comfort zone. Here, you stay safe, predictable, and it’s not as if you will kill anyone for doing so. “But what it will kill is any purpose, meaning, or surprise in your life,” Monique points out. “When you don’t try new things, you won’t have any excitement, originality, or new motivation about anything.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing us to change our perspectives on how to live, act, and interact with others. “Use the time spent in lockdown to look for opportunities that will challenge your comfort zone; the result is either you say ‘This really isn’t for me,’ or you become so comfortable with the experience that you grow from it and it becomes your new comfort zone,” Monique says.