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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Day I Stepped Out of My Comfort Zone Is the Day My Career Really Started

For much of my young adult life, I struggled with crazy, irrational fear. More specifically: A fear of speaking up. A fear of the awkward, stretched silences that inevitably followed the question, “How about you, Joyce?”—a question that hung in the air as my cheeks burned red and I scrambled to find words for the thoughts that, moments before, spun so clearly in my head. This fear followed me through the years, only growing deeper as I grew older.

Around college time, I began to feel mildly claustrophobic in social situations. I gravitated toward the back of classrooms. I could handle small groups only—buffered by one or two of my close friends, I was comfortable enough. Parties were doable, enjoyable even. But venturing out alone was a no-go. The years slinked by as I became more and more adept at shying away from social experiences and meeting new people. My social circle was small, tight-knit, and that was just fine by me.

Come graduation time, though, I hit a wall. I realized I had chosen a degree before figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.

Did I really want to be a psychologist? Why did I get a psychology degree anyway? Who was I, four years ago with no professional experience, to think that psychology was the perfect career path for the rest of my adult life?

I panicked.

I realized I had lived most of my life in my comfort zone, a warm and cushy bubble where I could ride out the years without venturing into the strange and scary “real world” full of jobs and strangers.

I Tried Switching Gears But Only Went Halfway

Deciding to get radical, I picked a graduate school in a city in which I had never lived; a city where I had no friends. That was a good start toward getting out of my comfort zone, I figured. But the degree I chose? Human Resources Development. Why? Because I found job openings in that field and it seemed to fit with my background in psychology. Did I really want to do HR for the rest of my life? I figured if I got the degree, the answer would have to be yes, and anyway, the school looked nice enough.

I essentially took “getting radical” halfway. I switched gears and tried a few new things, but I was still playing it safe by picking a degree based on job prospects…not my real interests.

About six months into the program, I knew it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t going to quit—I was committed to finish—so I kept my head down and completed the program with flying colors. Weakly proud of my on-paper success, I updated my resume and sent it out into the unknown. I eventually got a job offer, said yes, and buckled down for what ended up being, without a doubt, the worst job I ever had. Have you ever had a job where everything sounded great during the interview, and in reality it was a complete disaster? That was this job.

I ultimately left and entered a period where I spun my wheels, trying to figure out my life. I cycled in and out of job options and consulting opportunities, feeling shackled to my past choices, my degrees, my work history, and my fear of the unknown. I felt a constant strumming of fear and anxiety, and it didn’t help that my support system was minute. I had made a grand total of one friend in the span of two years.

I Decided to Break Up With My Past

At one point, sitting alone in my living room watching Love Actually for the umpteenth time, I chose to get radical again…but this time, I decided to go radical all the way. Have you heard the phrase “if you want something you’ve never had, you have to try things you’ve never done”? Well, I was ready for something I never had. I was ready to feel happy and fulfilled.

It was time to push through my comfort zone so hard that it could explode and reform completely, creating an entirely new ecosystem within which I could exist. I committed to dramatically expanding my then-tiny network and finding a job that I actually wanted to do.

I went on LinkedIn and made a short list of people I wanted to meet—complete strangers with intimidating job titles. I typed up introductory emails with clammy hands and a sinking stomach, feeling like a fraud. Who was I to take up this important person’s time? I felt sick asking them to meet me for coffee. I was deeply uncomfortable every step of the way, from making the invite to attending the meeting itself.

I now embrace that feeling of discomfort because I know that being pushed out of my comfort zone, and feeling that discomfort, is the key to enormous breakthroughs. As a result of those first nervous coffee dates, I propelled my mission into a grand scheme to meet with at least 100 business owners and executives one-on-one in a year’s time.

I accomplished this and so much more.

I Got Huge Results and Breakthroughs

My LinkedIn network rapidly grew by 800% with new (and, more importantly, authentic) connections. I attended over 20 networking events, six of which I would not have been able to attend without receiving a personal introduction from someone I had met, and 20 of which I would never have attended before I chose my challenge.

Because of the relationships I developed, I secured a business executive position doing work that I love before the age of 30 (in a field completely unrelated to psychology or HR). And other, less measurable results included: Greater confidence, lower anxiety, and increased feelings of self-worth. Those were perhaps the best results of all.

It is no stretch of reality to say that pushing outside of my comfort zone caused extraordinary results in my life.

Now, It’s Your Turn

What are your deepest fears? What would it be like if those fears were completely obliterated and you were unstoppable in achieving everything you want?

It would be amazing, right?

Here’s how to start getting incredible results:

  1. Make a short list of your fears.
  2. Identify an action step you can take to conquer each fear.
  3. Schedule time over the next week to take that action step.
  4. Do it! No rescheduling, postponing, or excuses allowed.

Editor’s note: The original title of this article was “The Day I Stopped Being an Introvert Is the Day My Career Really Started.” Unfortunately, we missed the mark here. The headline has since been changed.

This article was originally published on Career Contessa. It has been republished here with permission.

Photo of man diving courtesy of Shutterstock.