I recently moved to a small mountain town in northern California. I moved from a medium-sized ocean town in southern North Carolina, where I lived my life as the quintessential beach girl: I surfed. I went scuba diving and free diving. I paddled. I rode my beach cruiser bike everywhere. I dove in the salty water every day after work simply because I could. So to say that I am a bit out of my comfort zone living in the mountains is a gross understatement. But that’s exactly why I did it (at least part of the reason). I felt very comfortable with my life at the beach, and very happy, but I knew it was time to try something else. I knew it was time to get up, stretch my legs, and find a new environment in which to thrive and grow. I knew it was time to do this so that I could become more well-rounded, and ultimately, the best version of myself.
I think I’ve done things like this in my professional life, too. Whether I’m embarking on a new project that is unfamiliar to me, traveling to a client site where I’ve never been, going to a conference where I know absolutely no one, or arriving at an unfamiliar, activated EOC in the midst of an ongoing disaster. All of these things are scary, but all of these things make me a better emergency manager.
“Women in emergency management” as a topic itself emphasizes this point as well. I’m sure the first women who ventured into this new field did not find it comfortable (I’m not sure anyone really finds it comfortable to be different from everyone else in a particular group). And maybe their peers helped them feel more comfortable, or did the opposite (knowingly or unknowingly). Over the years, we have evolved emergency management into a comfort zone for all types of people, and we encourage diversity in our ever-changing field. Pushing the limits of our comfort zone is exactly how we got here. Getting out of our comfort zone, and growing and thriving, is what it takes to evolve and to get where we want to be. It is an ongoing, necessary process, though a challenging one. I think none of us would have become emergency managers without this motivation, and I’ll speak for myself (though I’m guessing many of you will agree), but that makes me especially proud of my emergency management career.
So what does it take to successfully move out of your comfort zone and evolve to the next level in your career, or simply of yourself? I’m not saying I have the answers (as I write this I’m sitting next to a giant humidifier, because I’m still not accustomed to this dry mountain air after living in heavy humidity for ten years), but here are a few things I’ve learned as I’ve stretched beyond my comfort zone recently, and throughout my life:
Find the similarities, and what is familiar. This may seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes moving out of your comfort zone is traumatic. If you find something (or a few things) that is familiar and can make the transition easier, I say capitalize on it (at least in the beginning). For example, the mountains are a beautiful, natural feature of the earth, just like the ocean. Capitalizing on this fact has made it easier for me to immerse myself in this new environment. I am lucky enough to live in a beautiful place – on some level it doesn’t really matter whether it’s wet or dry.
Rely on your people. I know all of us have people who remain in our lives no matter what changes we go through and no matter where we go (I sure do, and I don’t know what I’d do without them!). These people are supportive no matter what we decide to do or which direction we decide to take. So these people play a very important role in moving outside of our comfort zones. They can provide support and a constant to go back to throughout the journey. They can also serve as a sounding board as we evolve and change through our transition. I have a coworker who lives nearby to my new town, and he has served as a constant source of support: he knows both where I came from and where I want to go, and because of that, he is helping me as I evolve to get there. (He’s also teaching me the difference between ICS and SEMS – now that I’m a California emergency manager – though to be honest, I’m still slightly confused about it…)
Embrace, and appreciate, the new. This may be the toughest piece of advice to follow when moving out of your comfort zone. We want to cling on to the elements of our comfort zone. We want to bring them with us as we evolve into a new space (whether it’s a virtual, physical, or emotional one). But that sometimes means we shun what the new space is providing to us, and that will prevent us from ever leaving our old one! In order to follow this piece of advice, I had to take the first bullet above and push it to a new level. I had to find the familiar so that I could transition into this new comfort zone, but then take the new zone and appreciate it all on its own. I had to appreciate the mountains as mountains, and not for how they related to the sea. That appreciation took me to a new level in my new zone, which began to approach a new level of comfort. Our new (almost comfortable) zone deserves its own appreciation; it cannot be constantly tied or compared to our old life.
Take on the challenge of moving from your comfort zone, but realize that it is just that: a challenge. Moving out of a comfort zone is tough for everyone, and we all know we need to do it in order to learn and grow, but that does not mean it’s easy. It’s important to remain aware that growing out of your comfort zone is a tough thing, so it’s ok to take a moment and feel exasperated, or take a deep breath, or feel like it was the wrong decision. But after you’ve had that moment, push forward. It’s all part of the learning and growing process.
I recently listened to a TED talk by Brené Brown, researcher who has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. When describing how she had to face a particularly difficult phase of her research, she suggests: “Lean into the discomfort of your work.” (This happens to be the sentiment of a recent controversial book, as well – that perhaps we should all read?) So maybe this is how I can sum up all of the above: When reaching outside of your comfort zone, lean into the discomfort. Embrace the power of vulnerability, which can ultimately become the birthplace of joy, creativity, and love (as Brené Brown also states so eloquently in her TED talk) in all aspects of our lives: professional, emotional, and spiritual.
As I take my daily mountain hikes these days (instead of my daily jumps into the ocean), I’ve noticed the unstoppable blooming of a wide variety wildflowers dotting the paths and rocky slopes I traverse. These beautiful and hardy little beings have reminded me that moving from one season to the other means a change in landscape. And tough as it may be to grow and thrive in such a harsh environment, they persevere, and are better for it (and really, they don’t have much of a choice, do they?). So I embrace the change as I move out of my comfort zone, and vow to learn from it so that I can grow and thrive.
~Suzy Blake, Director of Communications and Marketing
How about you? How have you moved out of your comfort zone lately? What activities do you pursue to grow yourself or your emergency management career outside of your comfort zone? How has that helped you? And tips for the rest of us? We would love to hear from you! Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . We would love to publish your story on our blog!