Stepping Into Thin Air – What we can learn from the people around us

This morning I watched my 17-year-old son OverTheEdgerappel off the roof of a 24-story building in downtown Portland, Oregon, to raise money for his local Boy Scout Council. While my heart rate quickens and my palms get sweaty just thinking about it, he touched down with a huge smile and complained that the automatic braking mechanism slowed him down. I’ve tried to explain to him that “normal people” have an instinctual aversion to stepping off the roof, whether they’re 12 or 300 feet in the air, but he shrugs it off with his logical, thrill-seeking brain, and explains that there are plenty of safety measures in place. Fearlessness is a characteristic that he’s always had, and is something that I’ve always admired about him.

This got me thinking about the wired-in traits that we all have, and how the mix of people around us can push us to step out of our comfort zones and develop new skills. Too often, when it comes to hiring, we gravitate toward someone that we get along with, who looks at things the same way we do. Building a homogenous team may sound like a great idea – no one is butting heads, and everyone works well together. However, too often it also results in a lack of innovation, and can leave a business owner wondering why the company is experiencing stagnation.

Neale Donald Walsch said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” The same could be said of innovation. Any entrepreneur will tell you that starting a new business feels a lot like standing on a bridge with a bungee tied to your ankles, and making the conscious decision to jump.  Even those who jump time after time have areas of the business that make them uncomfortable, though. One might feel that the monotony of running the “business” part of the venture sucks the very essence out of their soul, and another might want to focus on creating the product and be petrified at the idea of networking events. Successful entrepreneurs learn to honestly evaluate their own areas of weakness, and surround themselves with others who compliment, rather than duplicate their skill sets, and who will push them to the edges of their comfort zones, which is where true innovation is possible.

For managers, pushing your own boundaries can take several forms. These might include setting unrealistic “stretch” goals, challenging yourself to focus a certain part of each day on areas of the business in which you’re not comfortable, or working with people who are comfortable in those areas of the business to develop your skills. Find people who really excel in the areas that you struggle with, and recruit them. Enlisting a good cheerleader who will also hold you accountable is a great start. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from one of my many career cheerleaders on expanding my comfort zone, was “Just fake it… OK, you’re going to have to fake it better than that”.

And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not going to rappel off the building with my son next year. That’s just nuts.