Finding Your Comfort Zone In The Growth Zone

AJW's TaproomOne of my favorite exercises to do with kids when I take them out on adventures in the mountains is the classic Outward Bound ‘Comfort Zone’ exercise.

To do it, you take a couple of ropes (or whatever you have) and make two concentric circles. Then, you have the whole group stand in a circle around the outside circle and explain that the center circle is their ‘comfort zone,’ the middle circle is their ‘growth zone,’ and the outer circle is their ‘panic zone.’ Then, you list off a bunch of activities and ask the students to place themselves in the zones they would likely occupy when participating in those activities. Typical activity examples include bungee jumping, public speaking, going to a funeral, whitewater kayaking, taking the SAT, and skiing a black-diamond ski run.

The goal of the exercise is to acquaint the students with the idea of each zone and, then, to encourage them to find ways, over the course of the upcoming adventure, to maximize their time in the growth zone while attempting to limit their time in both the comfort zone and the panic zone.

Quite a bit of research has gone into this exercise over the years and some definitions have emerged out of the research which can be informative:

The Comfort Zone: This represents an area with no disequilibrium where adequate growth can only be marginally achieved, if at all.

The Growth Zone: This represents an area which requires moderate levels of arousal and stress allowing for ‘cognitive dissonance’* and, ultimately, learning.

* Cognitive Dissonance: This is an ‘uncomfortable internal state occurring when new information conflicts with commonly held beliefs.’

The Panic Zone: This represents a state in which arousal and anxiety reach a point that no longer allows for sufficient focus on the task and, therefore, little to no chance for growth or learning.

Armed with these definitions along with decades of research, the comfort-zone model suggests that the point at which the best learning outcomes and significant experiences are made are found when individuals are outside of their comfort zone and not in reach of their panic zone. Learning can occur in moderate levels of stress when attention to the task can still be met while still dealing with a manageable amount of induced stress.

In thinking about this in the context of long-distance ultramarathon running, I cannot think of another place where maximizing time in the growth zone could be more beneficial. Whether in training or racing, too much time in the comfort or panic zones can only lead to failure. And yet, in the context of the growth zone, for most of us, the sky’s the limit! Indeed, finding that sweet spot between the mundane and the otherworldly is what we do every time we head out there on a long adventure. In many ways, it’s what makes us who we are.

Think about cognitive dissonance for a minute. Clinically defined, it’s when something new and perhaps a little overwhelming crashes into something we thought we understood and knew. How many times does that happen during the course of a long ultramarathon? I’d suggest, a lot. And it’s what we do with that dissonance, how we attack it, lean into it, and make it assonance, that ends up being the difference between success or failure.

So the next time you’re dealing with some existential crisis in your family, job, or life, think about how you can deal with it from the runner’s perspective. Think about how you long for the growth zone and seek to maximize your time therein. Think about how you make dissonance into assonance just about every time you lace them up. And then, tell that guy at the office who always asks you why you run, “Because I find my comfort zone in the growth zone.”

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Old Nation M-43 N.E. IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Michigan and it’s a cool story: Scott Snyder, an ultrarunner from Adrian, Michigan, came down to Virginia last weekend from Michigan (drove it all in one shot!) to run the Odyssey 40 Miler in Douthat State Park as a tune up for Pinhoti 100 Mile in November. Hanging around the finish line afterward (Scott beat me by just over a minute), he wandered over and handed me a beer, a really, really good beer that he had brought all the way from Michigan for the occasion. The beer Scott handed me was nectar in a can! From Old Nation Brewing Company in Williamston, Michigan, this M-43 New England India Pale Ale was simply magical. It was rich, balanced, dry hopped, and eminently drinkable. If this was Old Nation’s attempt to swing for the fences with a Vermont Style IPA, they hit a Grand Slam. Check it out sometime. It’s one great beer!

Call for Comments

  • When was the last time you found yourself in your growth zone? What did you get out of it?
  • How do you nudge yourself out of your comfort zone?

There are 13 comments

  1. Run GMD

    Great post, AJW. I also had the good fortune to sample M-43 this summer. Fabulous beer!

    It’s funny, but it seems that many of my “growth zone” opportunities are actually things that result in greater comfort. For instance cultivating patience, responsible pacing, working to overcome “FOMO” are opportunities for growth but they also increase with where I am in my running life. Strange to write on an ultrarunning site, but in the past it’s just been easier for me push a pace (while I can) or sign up for too many events rather than work to cultivate discipline and slow down. Perhaps that’s the cognitive dissonance of my growth zone talking – doing things that don’t come naturally safe in the knowledge that I will be better for them. Do that enough and perhaps I’ll find my comfort zone expanding and my panic zone diminishing.

  2. Steve0

    Completely off topic, but a friend was telling me about a blog post he read many years back about the hypothesis that most ultrarunners have something like 7 years or 7 100 miles races in which they can be competitive in.
    I’m not sure if the number is correct, thus I have failed in finding this post.
    Can anyone shed some light on this for me? Maybe a link to the article/post?

    1. AJW

      SteveO I’ve discussed this 7 year theory several times on Trail Runner Nation podcasts. Perhaps you can find it there under the search term “Sawchuk 7” as it was renowned Northern California ultrarunner who came up with the theory.

  3. Andy M

    Great piece, AJW. As a psychologist and ultrarunner, I am always striving to promote the optimum time spent in the growth zone, both professionally and personally. Though we do need some comfort zone time as well, and even a small dose of time in the panic zone, particularly as it relates to overcoming fears and emerging stronger on the other side. I’m sure there’s a study out there somewhere examining the best apportionment of time in these zones.

    On a different note, I’ve often been know to dissonance myself and make an assonance of myself at the same time …

    1. Delia

      I agree about the value of a small dose of time in the panic zone. After getting back out of the panic zone at times when I ended up there, I found it to be a useful reality check on the actual boundaries of the growth zone for me. Something could feel really hard and uncomfortable but not truly reside in the panic zone.
      Thanks for the post, AJW – this is a really good one.

  4. Colin

    Great post. This really hit it on the head as to what we try to do in teaching as well. While we do NOT want to induce panic in our students, I frequently have conversations with fellow teachers about how to push students into productive discomfort. Thanks for the thoughts!

  5. Fredrik

    Well, in accordance with the pareto rule of 80/20, 80% of my runs are within the comfort zone as easy pace runs… the challenges lies within the other 20 %… :)

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