Outside the Comfort Zone

I am – depending on how you count – a mid-career law librarian.  One thing that’s become clearer to me over the years is how easy it is to get in a comfortable rut.  There is a point at which you’ve really mastered or fixed or improved all the things that are core to your job.  New directions and new projects may arise, but a law library manager still has this steady activity – personnel, purchasing, marketing – at the heart.

It can be hard to carve out a challenge within a work environment.  My general approach when someone asks me, “Can I do it this way?” is to say yes.  If we can get to the same end result and the person can learn something new, or be excited about the work, then that’s the optimal result.  I’ve been lucky that when I’ve pitched ideas – like writing an e-book or working with a law library to review its operations – my bosses have typically said okay.  Some challenges, like coaching soccer, I’ve done outside work.

When I look for something new to try, it tends to be something aligned with what I’ve been doing.  The same but more so, if you like.  Writing 10,000 words is a different thing from 1,000.  Speaking at a bigger conference rather than with your internal teams.  Sharing expertise at a broader or higher level.  If it’s work related, I pass it by my boss.  This can help them see I’m pushing myself, but it can also help flag if I need to worry about our business conduct policy (are you getting income from an activity, honorarium or whatever) or politics.  There was a really interesting project that arose recently – it would have been an excellent growth experience personally – but it was one of those that became “if you are successful, the output could lead to you being let go.”  Always worth having a word at the start!

If you can find a challenge that’s aligned pretty well with your expertise, than you can slowly push the comfort zone out.  As your skills expand at the fringes, your comfort zone will grow to encompass these new skills.

Sometimes, though, you have to jump right outside your zone.  That’s what I’ve been doing recently in a local wind band. It’s been a completely different experience.

It had been literally decades since I’d played the horn, although I’d played the bagpipes on and off over the intervening years.  When one of the boys said he’d join the local volunteer concert band if I would, I decided to give it a shot.

The sort of challenge I’ve had is exactly the type that has been harder to find at work.

Learning how to play again has been easier than I expected – my embouchure is still mostly there – although the fingerings for the notes are very rusty.  What became very clear was that, unlike most challenges I’d taken on at work, this was going to have a couple of noticeable differences.

  • There’s no fixed team.  Our horn section fluctuates based on availability, so that horn section part might become a solo in a concert if you’re on your own.  I have to be much more agile at moving between roles – playing a 1st horn part if no-one else is there to play it, for example.
  • A lot of individual challenges are just that: individual.  But as part of a wind band, your success tends to come from being part of the organism and not being noticeable as an individual.

But the more I’ve thought about it over the past few months – and our first performances – I’ve started to see the similarities to any other personal challenge:

  • No one is rooting for your failure.  The people you work with, the audience for whatever you’re doing, are all hoping for your success.  People listening to our band don’t want to hear bum notes.  My stand partners, the conductor, and other band members want me to play the notes they’re expecting to hear, which they may rely on hearing for their own success.
  • Anxiety is natural when you do something you’re not comfortable doing.  Anticipating what can go wrong will naturally make any challenge harder, so it’s worth running through the list of what could actually go wrong, as opposed to what makes you anxious about making the effort.  With the horn, I realize that there are a number of weak points – my embouchure, endurance, breathing, getting the right notes – that, in a performance, will hinder my success.  Those are things I can improve through practice; I’m not a believer in perfect, in me or others, and realize that there are always going to be round edges.
  • You can’t control everything.  The air conditioning came on during our first performance, and blew horn and clarinet music off our stands in the middle of a piece.  You pick up your music and jump back in.  Obstacles are meant to be cleared, as Grover might say, by going over, under or through them.
  • Everyone deals differently with challenges.  My son was anxious about joining a band full of old-timers.  There was the social anxiety aspect but also the mature observation that these people may have been playing for longer than he’d been alive, and would he be good enough.  Once he was through the first practice, he was buoyant.  The band was welcoming, his skills weren’t better or worse than most other people.  Me?  I had the same experience but, internally, I have less confidence than he does.  So I am still a bit more anxious.  And just as confident that this too will pass.

It can be hard to take on a new challenge.  If you work in an organization that doesn’t recognize the effort, it can seem like there’s not a good reason to do it.  A good manager will recognize the effort, if not be able to reward it financially or otherwise.  And a good challenge will have value for you, in any event, and that can be it’s own reward.

Pushing out of your comfort zone can be a positive growing experience.  It may or may not be professional growth, depending on where it occurs.  For me, it’s putting me back in touch with some of the emotions and work that I haven’t experienced in a while, as I’ve become expert in the regular areas in which I’m involved.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.