Where daring the scary can lead to
On the excitement of taking the plunge
We’ve all heard it a million times: “You must step out of your comfort zone to grow.” It sounds like a platitude. Yawn… But just because you heard it often doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, it can be one of the most important things to learn in life – and one of the most exciting.
Many people shy away from tasks that frighten them, me included. Giving a toast at a friend's birthday party, signing up for an acting class, or taking on more responsibility at a volunteer organization - depending on your personality and experience, activities like these can seem daunting. And more often than not, we surrender to our fears, even if we would love to be a toastmaster, leader, or actor. However, if we can bring ourselves to do what scares us, unexpected things might happen.
I recently listened to an interview with the British novelist Claire Fuller about how doing something scary completely changed her life. Her story, which she tells on the Penguin Podcast, blew my mind.
About 12 years ago, Claire, who at that time worked in marketing, and her husband Tim discovered a book called Learning To Love You More. The book is about a project initiated by two American artists who invited the general public to commit to specific art assignments. Participants could send in photographs, videos, and texts about their work which were then posted on a website. (Later, the project was acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it resides today.)
Claire and Tim set about doing the assignments, too. Some of them were relatively simple, like taking a photograph from under your bed after having not cleaned there for some time. Others were more complicated, making a carving of the head of a Greek taxi driver out of a vegetable, for example.
But the really difficult ones were those that involved doing something in public, as Claire recalls. Like the assignment to make a big encouraging banner and display it in a communal space. Claire created a “Life is an adventure” banner, hung it on the fence of the car park of a pub, took photographs – “and then ran away, because it was kind of scary just to hang it up.” In another exercise, Tim set up a one-person demonstration. With a placard demanding “Less driving. More walking” in hand, he positioned himself in the middle of a four-lane highway and stopped all the cars while Claire took photographs. And then they quickly took off.
The tasks were challenging - but Claire felt great. So great that she didn’t want to stop, as she describes
[The assignments] were crazy things, a lot of them, and scary things that were really out of my comfort zone. But the feeling of having done them was tremendous. We were on such a high that we had actually done them. And after we'd finished everything in the book that we could possibly do, I was looking around for more things that would give me this feeling, something that was difficult but would give me such a great sense of achievement after I'd done it.
She found out that her local library had organized a slam. Participants had to write a short story and then read it out in front of a paying audience, who would vote on the winner. Anybody could sign up, and so Claire did.
Claire had not written something akin to a short story since high school, not to mention reciting something she had written on a stage, she recalls: “That was a big challenge for me. Really scary!” But she did it anyway. She wrote a story and, on the day of the slam, read it out loud to the audience.
She did not win – but kept going. Six weeks later, the next competition came up. She did not win that one either, nor did she win the third one. But by the end of the year, she came out on top. The audience voted her story the winner, and as a prize, she received a share of the door money. As she recalls, it was about ten pounds, her first earnings from writing.
The real benefit of participating in the competition, however, was much more significant, as she explains:
“I learned a lot from writing all those short stories, which were very bad, and also about reading your work out in public. And I also learned that I don't really like writing, but I like having written. I love that feeling of having done it. And so I will go through the pain of writing just to have that feeling of having done it.”
These insights steered her on a whole new professional path. Today, Claire is an accomplished and award-winning author who has published four novels and many short stories. Her most recent book, Unsettled Ground, was shortlisted for the 2021 Women's Prize for Fiction, one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes.
Claire’s experience is not only inspiring, but it also highlights three important insights that are corroborated by science:
#1: Having done something challenging is exhilarating.
Before we do something that we find difficult, we usually don’t feel great. We might be nauseous before giving a talk or have soft knees when we enter a dance studio for the first time. But afterward, the world appears bright and wide, and we seem to float.
What triggers these glorious feelings? Research suggests that it is the endorphins that are released when you do something frightening that gives you a high. For example, in a study from Germany, researchers found that in 12 novice bungee jumpers, ratings on euphoria increased markedly after performing the jump and remained highly elevated for the next half hour. This correlated with a similar increase in beta-endorphins.
You might even think better after you have done something scary. In a more recent Spanish study, researchers found that bungee jumpers showed enhanced cognitive performance after the jump, as long as they perceived the intensely arousing experience as positive.
#2: You might like the things you dread.
“I would never enjoy being a teacher,” you say. Or “The idea of traveling all by myself scares me. It is just not for me.”
Think again. Psychologists tell us that people do not know themselves as well as they believe they do. “Decades of psychological research have shown that we’re pretty awful at predicting the future—especially about ourselves,” writes Andy Molinsky, Professor of Organizational Behavior and International Management at Brandeis University and author of the book Reach. “We chronically and routinely underestimate our capabilities and our resilience, thinking that we’ll feel and be much worse off in the future than we actually end up being.”
This is also true when it comes to doing unfamiliar and uncomfortable things, as Molinsky explains: “Many people have told me how shocked they are that after finally trying something new, they discover how fun it is . . . or how surprisingly unstressful it feels . . . or how exciting it can be . . . and, most important, how they never would have discovered this if they hadn’t had the courage and conviction to make it happen in the first place.”
So maybe you have been dreaming of a trip to Iceland or India or Kenya for a long time, but you are too timid to do it all by yourself. But then, as your friends keep putting you off, you finally bring yourself to travel on your own after all. And you discover how intensely you experience the smells, sounds, and colors of your surroundings when you are not chatting with somebody else all the time – and how lovely that is.
Often there is a second epiphany, Molinsky points out: “Alongside realizing that what you feared all along perhaps isn’t as fearful as you had imagined, you may very well discover that you’re better at doing the behavior than you originally thought.”
So you might start a Yoga teacher training and tell everybody, “I’ll just do it for myself, to deepen my Yoga practice. I will never be a teacher. I hate teaching”. And in the course of the training, you find out that you not only like explaining and demonstrating yoga poses to others, but your trainers tell you that you are pretty good at it, too. (This actually happened to me.)
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#3: Discomfort is a sign that you learn.
Research shows that people who actively seek uncomfortable situations achieve more. Look at this clever study from Kaitlin Woolley (Cornell University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago). The researchers partnered with the training center of “The Second City,” Chicago’s famous improvisational theatre, and videotaped several hundred improv students while participating in an exercise called “Give Focus”: One person moves around in some interesting way while the rest of the group is frozen in place; at any point, the person can “pass the focus” to someone else.
To test the effects of embracing discomfort, some students were explicitly asked to push past their comfort zone and put themselves in situations that make them feel awkward and uncomfortable. As a comparison, others were invited to develop new skills and feel themselves improving. Yet a third group was told to merely see if the exercise was working.
When the researchers analyzed the video recordings, they found that those asked to seek discomfort held onto the focus role longer and took more risks than those in the other two groups, for example, by jumping around boisterously and not just hopping lightly. “Leaning into the awkwardness allowed them to engage and develop their skills,” Fishbach explains in Behavioral Scientist.
Two other tests showed similar results: In an expressive writing exercise, those invited to push for discomfort engaged more. Embracing discomfort also helped people open themselves and stay open when faced with unpleasant information, like reading articles about gun violence or health crises.
Bottom line: “Moderate emotional discomfort is a signal that you’re developing as a person,” Fishbach writes, “and it often happens before you can detect the benefits of self-growth.”
Taking the plunge
So what does that translate to? The message of Psychologist Andy Molinsky is straightforward: “Take the plunge. Put mechanisms in place that will force you to dive in, and you might discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought.” On the contrary, it will most likely be quite exhilarating and also send you on a steep learning curve. And who knows, having done something scary might even encourage you to change the direction of your life.
Want to know more? In the next newsletter, I will explain three essential steps to approach uncomfortable tasks with more ease.
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