Sovereign Individual

Pascal Precht

Forward thinking technological progressive and software engineer trying to be less wrong every day.

Leaving the comfort zone is necessary for growth

2019-08-07 • 7 min read

It’s been about a year since I wrote about the urge to challenge myself and do something different to leave my comfort zone. Shortly after that, I joined the Embark team at Status and it’s been a very interesting ride so far. A new technology, a new environment, a new industry, a new scope to work on, a new audience to work with. There are probably a lot of other things that were (and still are) “new” to me. Taking this step was one of the biggest shifts in my life and I would say I’m just half-way through.

Just recently I’ve resigned from the Google Developer Experts program that I’ve been part of for years, putting down the badge of “being an expert” in a certain field which surely contributed to my developer reputation in one way or another. In addition to that, I’ve decided to learn the Rust programming language with zero experience in systems programming.

Obviously, leaving the comfort zone is not just about work. As I’m writing this article, I’m sitting in the train on my way back home. I attended a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Camp for a full week, with about 300 people. Considering that I’m still very new to this sport and don’t know anybody in that space, this was certainly a very interesting experience as well.

The reason I’m bringing all this up is that I’ve observed some interesting effects that resulted from those uncomfortable actions and I thought it might be worth sharing, so other people can learn about the possible upsides and downsides of it as well.

Here are a few thoughts that might lead you in the right direction when it comes to trying something you always wanted to do, but makes you feel uncomfortable just even thinking about it.

It’s scary at first

This is probably obvious but I believe it does make sense to raise awareness about this. When I decided to change the field I’m working in and also switch from front-end development to anything that doesn’t necessarily involve any kind of front-end at all, I felt very vulnerable and anxious. I can’t even say that I haven’t had any experience with, for example, back-end development before. However, having done mostly web development for the past 10 years or so, out of which seven years have been working with Angular, I lost a fair amount of confidence on whether I’ll be able to pull off anything else.

Another factor that made it quite uncomfortable was that I haven’t done any “serious” programming in years, since I was working as a consultant teaching others how to use the tools that I was good at, as opposed to actually building applications with real-world challenges.

All these things can pile up and make you question yourself and your skillset. This can be very depressing at times when you start doubting what you’re capable of, however, always keep in mind that this is part of the game. You’re literally stepping out of what’s convenient and intend to do something that probably requires you to start from scratch.

Starting from scratch

Amongst the natural effects of doing something outside your comfort zone is that you have to accept that you’re most likely surrounded by or working with people that are way better at what you’re doing. Hence, feeling less “smart” than the rest and asking a lot of (simple/beginner) questions repeatedly is going to be part of your daily actions.

When I was a GDE specialized in Angular, people came to me with their questions regularly, or asked for my advice when it came to building and architecting certain things. At conferences, I obviously wanted to live up to that expectation as well and made sure that what I’m speaking about is either unexplored by the community or covers a technical topic in-depth. I would argue that, in a position like this, where you’re known for producing high-quality content, it is much easier to make people listen to you and feel confident that what you’re doing is indeed the right way to go.

Stepping away from that and doing something I had no clue about was very refreshing and made me realize again what it feels like to attend a conference as non-speaker, to join community channels and ask for help, to invest time in reading books to learn new things and to not be the guy in the room that supposedly knows “everything” (not that I ever said or believed I did, but hopefully you get what I mean).

Acknowledging that you’re a beginner again and leaving your ego at the door before you enter the room is probably the best position to be in if you want to learn something new.

Confidence comes back, one step at a time

When was the last time you did something that you were completely unsure about whether you could do it and after a little while you actually managed to do exactly that thing? How did it feel?

Often, it can be very overwhelming when we’re faced with a task or challenge that we don’t have any experience with. It’s super natural, we’re doing something new after all. As mentioned earlier, there’ll be times where you’ll be questioning your skills and your confidence will suffer. However, the nice thing about “starting from scratch” is that there’s opportunities to rebuild that confidence one step at a time. Things might go slow at first, but with every little achievement you’ll get better at it and realize “Wow, I can actually do this!”.

I’ve had those moments plenty times in the past months and it’s a great feeling to have. It’s very motivating and you’re more likely to take on other, bigger challenges, and at the same time it makes you feel proud that you managed to bite the bullet and work your way through as well. How rewarding!

Growth at last

One thing is for sure: if you don’t step out of your comfort zone, you most likely won’t grow. That doesn’t mean that you have to go ahead and change your job to become a better person. It’s obviously possible to grow within a field as well. From my experience however, I can tell that doing something that isn’t necessarily related to what I’m used to, amplifies the growth a lot.

A new environment comes often with new people, so you’ll learn how to deal with those different characters. This is great to revisit your biases and opinions, and helps developing better empathy. Solving new problems and challenges will activate different parts of your brain that will train your overall approach to challenges in life as well, since your experience will enable you to generalize a lot of things.

If you’re a developer, learning a new programming language and committing to it for about a year or so is a great way to test this out. With a new programming language, there’s also a new community, a new environment, new challenges and different perspectives.

Always keep in mind, we’re not replacing one thing with another. What actually happens is that we keep adding new things to our portfolio of what makes us the human we are.

Closing thoughts

If you have the feeling you’re in some way left behind and have trouble catching up with everything, doing something completely different in life can open up a whole new world of opportunities to learn and grow. Just keep in mind to do things one step at a time, don’t overwhelm yourself with too many things and changes. The steps I’ve taken in my life also didn’t happen all at once.

Consider every step outside of your comfort zone as an opportunity to extend your personal horizon with interesting adventures ahead.

How does that not sound exciting?