I cannot navigate a dark room if my life depended on it. Just ask my wife. I get up in the middle of the night to get a drink and… BOOM! I hit a wall, stub my toe, or step on a perfectly placed Lego (those are the worst). Most people’s eyes can adjust in seconds. Mine, however, take longer than most and so my poor wife has to wake up to me cussing and hobbling around in the dark until I finally make it to the door.
Embarking on an ambiguous venture such as a job interview, work presentation, new job, project, or a family move is a lot like navigating a dark room. These life experiences nudge you outside your comfort zone into ambiguous problems with no precedents to follow. Before you know it, you have stepped outside your comfort zone only to have stepped on that perfectly placed Lego and BOOM! You’re on the ground cursing life.
Our brains like certainty. In fact, they are hard-wired to predict and anticipate what will happen next. We look for patterns or scripts that make it easy to see what comes next. When those patterns play out in the way we expect, we experience an endorphin boost. However, when those patterns don’t play out the way we expect, our brain experiences a threat.
Managing the ambiguity of your comfort zone is a challenge because it means we cannot rely on patterns, we can’t predict what will happen next. When those ambiguity levels are high, our limbic brains (fight, flight, or freeze response) kicks into high gear because we lack control and we experience high levels of stress. We can’t anticipate Legos or walls when we are still adjusting to the darkness outside of our comfort zone.
So what can we do to navigate the ambiguity of our comfort zone?
In this article I would like to share 3 techniques to help you become what I call a Lego Trailblazer.
1. Experiment with small steps
It’s dark and you ventured outside your comfort zone and decided it was time for a job change. An effective way to make it easier on our limbic brain is to break the large venture into manageable pieces. Take small steps and see what happens next. Instead of focusing on the uncertainty of being offered the job, break that larger venture into smaller slices and focus on submitting the application first.
You submitted your application and wait what seems like an eternity for either the rejection email or a call for an interview. You are just leaving work when you receive an email. “Oh no,” you say to yourself, “Here comes the rejection email.” You feel flush as your limbic brain kicks on. You reluctantly open the email to find out that it is not a rejection email after all, but a request for an interview. That certainly wasn’t what you expected was it? On top of the unexpected, the email indicates that the interview will be done via ZOOM.
Now it’s time to focus on the next slice. The interview. Be mindful because your limbic brain will begin to focus on every possible negative outcome at this point. The best way to deal with that is to destigmatize the discomfort, take a few deep breaths, and focus on what you can do now to prepare for the interview.
You do your research, buy a new business suit, and rehearse some interview questions in front of the mirror. You feel ready. You log into your ZOOM call a few minutes early and wait… and wait… and wait a little more. You look at the clock and realize that your interview was supposed to start 15 minutes ago. The limbic brain starts to concoct all sorts of negative outcomes again. Why? Because you didn’t anticipate or plan for this. You just hit a wall in the dark. As you start to think all hope is lost, the interview panelists log in and apologize that their last meeting went over. Okay, you are now feeling your way along the wall again and ready for the next step.
You finish the interview and feel confident that you nailed it. A call comes the very next day, you pick up, and hear, “We are sorry, but we have offered the position to someone else. We appreciate your time.” BOOM! Those damn Legos!! You are on the ground in pain trying to find your way back to the wall.
When you find yourself in this quandary, don’t sweat it. It has happened to the best of us. In fact, it is often the failures that bring about the breakthrough and insights. Stepping on Legos while walking in the dark are common in life. Think of mistakes as valuable feedback steering you in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to talk about them and learn from them. Build curiosity while undertaking risk as it will help decrease the stress and increase creativity. Experiment with the small steps. The beauty of experiments is that they often fail and you have to adjust your approach to get it right the next time.
2. Learn from others who have thrived in uncertainty
There are so many examples throughout history of people who have done well navigating the uncertainty of their comfort zone and stepped on many Legos in the process. People like Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Steven R. Covey, and Pablo Picasso just to name a few. There are so many Lego navigation experts out there to learn from. Read their autobiographies and be inspired by their willingness to step way outside their comfort zone and learn from their many missteps.
You can get to know people in your life who are also Lego trailblazers. People who took risks and paved new terrain. Find out how they dealt with similar concerns you have. Did they think the journey was worth it? If your team or organization is facing ambiguity, find case studies of other companies that have addresses similar challenges.
As you may know, I have General Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety. My limbic brain is always composing worse case scenarios of uncertain situations. To help mitigate my overactive limbic brain, I have photos taped all around my computer in my home office of some of the most prominent Lego trailblazers (Abraham Lincoln, Will Smith, Stephen R. Covey) who constantly inspire me to pursue my dreams in spite of my many failed attempts.
3. Balance thinking with action
When I am not coaching individuals, I am fulfilling my other passion as a Director in Healthcare Finance and Revenue. This helps satisfy the more objective part of my brain. :) There are many people like me who want all the data collected and all of our ducks in a row before we act. Perfectionism is tough to let go, especially when past success can be traced back to getting it right with zero defects. We need to recognize perfectionism for what it might be- collecting more information to improve confidence in making a fault-free decision, thereby avoiding risk and criticism.
For those perfectionists reading this article, might I suggest a remediation that has helped me immensely. The remediation I am about to share has been applied not only by me, but also by many of my clients who struggle with perfectionism. I recommend taking a stab at decreasing your need for complete information and your need to be right all the time.
Ouch! I know, you probably cringed when you read that.
The trick is to decrease it slightly every week unit you reach a more reasonable balance between thinking it through and taking action. Try making some small steps in the dark as I mentioned earlier on little or no knowledge of the walls or Legos. Don’t spend your time thinking and analyzing where the Legos and walls are because you may be compromising action that will get you to fulfilling your potential. On the other hand, don’t spend so much time taking action without trying to remember where the Legos and the walls are. Try balancing thinking with action.