(image from Pixabay)
Uncertainty and risk taking.... two things that can us into a cluster**** of anxiety and stress. Yet we, as adults, expect children that we work with to be able to extend themselves beyond their comfort zones on a regular basis. If a child has anxiety about a particular situation/event/activity we encourage them to try, try, and try again, because we know that the more they do the activity the easier it will get. This is actually a good thing! When I was a child I was painfully shy, but the older I got the more I was actively encouraged to step into leadership roles. My teachers (and parents) recognised that I had leadership skills, but not the experience or confidence to undertake the role. With experience comes the confidence, and that led me to feeling comfortable enough to become school captain, give speeches in front of the community, swim at 2 Paralympic Games, and during that time even give an Australia Day speech with the then current Prime Minister sitting two seats down from me. I now speak for a living!
BUT, why is it that when we hit adulthood we suddenly think that we don't have to "push our boundaries" anymore? Why do we.... stop growing? Learning should be a lifelong pursuit, whatever that learning looks like, and this growth can make life more fulfilling and more purposeful. And if we expect children that we work with the be pushed out of their comfort zones, shouldn't we should children that we are willing to be pushed out of ours?
I am not saying this to simply provoke, or create argument, but having run workshops where some teachers have struggled with some of the activities, or had conversation with teachers who feel that they shouldn't have to be pushed out of their comfort zone, it is a topic that I have thought about hard and often.
I ran a Twitter poll on this very topic and the results were interesting, and regarding my previous experiences (see above paragraph) pleasantly surprising. This was my question: "If we ask children to step outside of their comfort zone (at least just a little), is it fair to ask teachers to do the same? I believe, as adults, it is good to stretch ourselves." The results were as follows: Yes 94%, No 0%, Sometimes 6%. Can I get a loud HELL YES!!!
But what is the scientific thought out there on pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and how can we do this?
In a study done on Outbound participants from two countries, it was discovered that pushing ourselves emotionally, creatively, and socially, places us in a peak learning experience. There were a number of elements to this study that proved quite interesting:
Flow - When in flow we become so engrossed by what we are doing that we loose track of time, space, etc. I am sure that you have been there, I know I have, many times, as an athlete, artist, academic, and speaker. To really hit flow, Csikszentmihayli (the expert on flow - read his book, it's great!), the experience has to be challenging, but not too challenging (this makes the activity engrossing), be intrinsically rewarding, and not provoke any boredom or worry. There has to be a certain level of stress to the activity, otherwise we struggle to maintain that engagement and urgency that drives us forward
Perceived Risk - Researchers have suggested that by minimising extreme risk, but perceiving elements of risk in the activity improves our sense of self, develops personal growth, and is an opportunity for self actualisation. Basically, if we take note of potential risks in the challenging experience, we can be more confident in our approach to the challenge.
Reflection - This study was primarily about the physical pushing of boundaries, but what was recognised that it wasn't the physical exertion that pushed boundaries, but the reflection afterwards, that provided the biggest opportunity for growth. Reflection in this study was done through journaling and debriefs. Where reflection can become challenging is through the character trait of honesty, are you being honest with yourself and can you take the honesty of leaders/trainers.
Ultimately what this study (as well as other research) states is that when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones we achieve a certain level of anxiety, and that that anxiety is good.
So my challenge to you is this - wherever you are at, whatever you find challenging, this summer holidays do take an opportunity to push yourself beyond your self-imposed limits.... and let me know what happens in the comments or on twitter.