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Your Career Comfort Zone is a Dangerous Trap: Here’s How to Escape It

Do you feel like you could be doing more to improve your career but don’t want to jeopardize your current position? If so, there’s a good chance you are stuck in your career comfort zone. 

Your career comfort zone will fool you into thinking that it’s better to do nothing than to take action. If you are unhappy in your current position or are in the midst of a career transition, take the opportunity to move beyond the illusory stability of your comfort zone.

What Is the Career Comfort Zone? 

To better understand how the comfort zone works, it might help to remember the old parable of the frog and the pot of water. To cook the frog, you don’t drop him into the pot when the water is boiling. He’ll simply jump back out. Instead, you drop him in when the water is cool and comfortable.  But while he’s happily swimming around, you gradually raise the temperature and slowly lull him into a fatal stupor…

Like the frog in the pot, your comfort zone lulls you into believing everything is fine.  But in reality, the routine and the lack of challenge you are experiencing at work is an illusion that can be fatal to your career. 

Did you know that recruiters in today’s job market are often suspicious of candidates who have spent a decade or more at one job or with one company? They are concerned that spending that much time doing one role or working in a single organization can make the candidate unable to deal with change. Worse, it could indicate that the candidate has clung to a comfortable position, and is unwilling to deal with challenges or growth opportunities.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you’ve experienced constant and unsettling challenges in your career, that might also be a strange sort of comfort zone. In my coaching practice, I often work with people who “can’t seem to get out of second gear.” They believe that there are obstacles on the outside that are holding them back. In many cases, though, their limiting beliefs and competing intentions keep them stuck because it’s more comfortable to avoid success than to risk failure.

The Risks of Staying in Your Career Comfort Zone

That inner conflict is nicely summed up by author Sir Terry Pratchett: “What kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place!” By doing the same thing every day and never changing the script, we never grow beyond what we already are. And we never get to figure out what we could be!

Massive digital disruption and change have upended nearly every business, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we are also called to disrupt our thinking and our behavior to keep pace.

Failing to be proactive about our career growth means that we will fall further behind the curve. Everything we’ve learned, including our skills and best practices, risk becoming obsolete. And we therefore run the risk of no longer being competitive or relevant in the workforce. 

The Rewards of Leaving Your Career Comfort Zone

Stepping out of your comfort zone may feel, well, uncomfortable, but so does getting out of bed in the morning when you’d rather stay under the warm covers.

It’s not something to dread. While you may be losing that illusory sense of comfort, you will be gaining much more. You’ll regain a sense of purpose and a deeper connection to your work. You’ll feel more stimulated through the challenges/ This will rekindle the fire and enthusiasm for your job that you may now realize was somehow lost along the way. 

Leaving the career comfort zone is liberating. It frees you from the cage of your own making. It enables you to reclaim and realize your potential.

As you feel more valuable, you are inspired to build stronger relationships with colleagues and dive deeper into current and future projects. The future now holds promise versus uncertainty. 

This growth and progress-oriented mindset is also motivating to the people you work with and draws them to you. If your “network is your net worth,” leaving your career comfort zone can extend your reach beyond your immediate circle. You become more visible and accessible to prospective network connections, new business opportunities, and recruiters. 

In the words of the author Neale Donald Walsch, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” 

Obstacles to Leaving Your Career Comfort Zone

Fear of change is one of the main obstacles that block your path when trying to leave your career comfort zone. We shun discomfort and the unfamiliar because it’s part of our early human programming. In doing so, we forget the dreams that initially inspired us. We get stuck in a time loop where those dreams never get to manifest. 

The fear of failure partners with the fear of change. Our fear tells us to give up on something new and exciting before we try it. The fear would rather accept the safety of mediocrity versus the risk of humiliation and defeat if we fail.  Then we will truly know that we are unworthy.

One way to confront the fear of failure is to reframe the meaning of failure itself. Remember Thomas Edison’s famous quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Perhaps the most confounding and counterintuitive obstacle we face is the fear of success. It may be easier, and more comfortable, to wallow in our unworthiness than to allow ourselves to achieve the wild success we dream of. That success may seem so unfamiliar and so different from our current circumstances that we freeze at the thought of what our life would be like if we achieved it. 

The typical model for the fear of success is the cautionary tale of the actor, musician, or athlete who achieves stardom and doesn’t know how to handle it. Success can seem too overwhelming. We tell ourselves it’s better to stay safe and unrecognized than to risk the uncertainty of success.

career comfort zone

Proactivity Is the Key: Always Look For “New Cheese” 

Proactivity is the key to stepping out of your career comfort zone. Being proactive means that you are always expecting things to change. You’re always anticipating how you’re going to respond so that you’re not caught unaware and forced into being reactive. 

In the bestselling self-help book, Who Moved My Cheese, Dr. Spencer Johnson, highlights that in order to enjoy change, we need to embrace it and always look forward to it. It’s actually less painful to adapt to change than to fight against it. 

To help deal with change, always ask yourself these three questions:

  1. How can I find greater opportunities – by fighting change or embracing it?
  2. What if the new circumstances lead to something even better than what I have now? How would my life look if I embraced these new circumstances?
  3. If I wasn’t afraid to fail, how would that change my life?

Being proactive is one of the most important decisions you can make in getting out of your career comfort zone. Your life and career won’t magically change if you stay on the path that you’re on. You have to make the first move. 

Create Small Successes

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your fears of change, failure, or even success, there is a simple way to find your balance and proceed beyond your career comfort zone:: one small step at a time.

This approach flies in the face of the dramatic and bold moves that we are told are necessary to effect change. But if we set the bar high and invest heavily in taking that dramatic step, we usually fall short – and thus retreat back into our career comfort zone.

Dividing everything into smaller blocks prevents you from feeling overwhelmed. Moreover, it helps keep things organized and makes it easier for you to track your progress. And, eventually — celebrate the small victories.

An efficient way to do this is using the “microstep” technique developed by Arianna Huffington and her team at Thrive Global. She believes that taking “small, incremental, science-backed actions can have immediate and long-lasting benefits to the way we live our lives.”

Take a “First Things First” Approach

Don’t focus on the difficulty of the change or the size of the goal you want to achieve. Prioritize a few first steps that feel reasonable, attainable – and easy to do.

To get yourself used to the idea of taking conscious, intentional, and progressive steps, you can apply the microstep technique to aspects of your life that are tangential to your career plan. This could include elements of your daily routine. Wake up five minutes early to add some stretches or a brief meditation into your day. Pick one friend you haven’t spoken with in a while and reach out (and repeat this every week). Use a different route to go to the market or commute to work.

By fully committing to those small new habits, you are setting the stage and training your mind to allow for bigger changes to happen.

As Jen Sincero, author of You Are A Badass, says: “If you want to live a life you’ve never lived, you have to do things you’ve never done.”

Stay Accountable: What Gets Measured Gets Managed

Create a tangible record of your microstep habit-building program. This is the key to actually manifesting your success. Keeping a journal or a log holds you accountable and helps you stay on track. 

You can also use a task management app, a note-taking app, or create a mind map of all of your activities and goals. Be as creative as you want. Just make sure you have a regular and accessible system that you can refer to. Let’s be honest! The feeling of crossing things from our targeted to-do lists is magical. 

Celebrating the little victories will give you more self-confidence. And keep going, even if you don’t feel you’re meeting your own expectations! Be patient and persistent in order to become more consistent! The more you work on this, the closer you’ll get to achieving your long-term goals.

Adopt a Career Growth Mindset

You can revolutionize your career and life by adopting a growth mindset. This is a mindset that is always open to change. It doesn’t mean that you think you can do anything, but it does give you the confidence to explore all possibilities and to never reflexively shrink from a challenge.

In terms of your career, it means that you never have to think of yourself as “unemployed.” It means that you are always engaged in the work that you do, even if you’re not currently getting paid to do it. You are staying informed, staying engaged with other professionals, and contributing to the future of your industry.

If you are currently employed, see how you could become an “intrapreneur” at your organization.  What growth-oriented project could you initiate and run that would make a significant contribution to your company’s future?

Always be learning! The career growth mindset is all about continually educating yourself and expanding your mind and capabilities. Become more valuable to your current or your future employer by staying up to date with the skills that you need in your job. But also explore new areas of learning that will fill you out as a whole person.

Always be giving! Look for opportunities to mentor and support your colleagues at every level, including your supervisor, your peers, and your subordinates (or more junior colleagues). As the old saying goes: you never fully know what you know until you’ve had the chance to teach it to another person. Be generous with your time and gracious and supportive with what you know and share.

Action Is Always a “Win”

Your comfort zone will always tell you to start “tomorrow” or try to get you back to what you know and understand from your past. Don’t be fooled!  If you had to pick a first step to leave your career comfort zone, what would it be? What is the first thought that pops into your head? Yes, that one! Now is the perfect time to act on it.

Use the appropriate techniques or suggestions in this article to begin your journey out of your career comfort zone.  

Don’t expect to change overnight. Change takes time. Be patient and understanding with yourself. Be encouraging, not discouraging.

You are not like anybody else. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t set arbitrary standards or unnecessarily high bars (remember the “microstep” idea from Thrive Global).  Just focus on your next steps, and take them one at a time.

As you progress on this journey, you will find yourself getting more comfortable with change, more excited about the road ahead, and more convinced that you can still achieve your goals and your dreams. You are becoming more resilient to adversity, and more proactive in determining your future.

What is your next action? What is standing in your way of making it happen? Share your thoughts in the comments to share your insights, obstacles, and wins.

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About The Author
John Tarnoff
John Tarnoff
John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers. Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges. Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global. He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue. Check out his interview with Mike and Larry on our Manopod Podcast.
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