Anyone who has ever been swimming can tell you that there are generally two strategies to transition from your comfortable spot on the shore. The first is to slowly wade in. Slowly wading in involves taking small steps of gradually increased depth until you are almost completely submerged. This process takes a long time as you slowly get accustomed to the temperature of the water. Wading often results in stopping and turning back as you change your mind about whether it would just be more fun to lie on your beach towel.
There is another method for getting yourself wet, however. That is simply to run and dive right in. Divers will initially feel an uncomfortable shock as their environment goes from hot to cold almost instantaneously. This small moment of displeasure, however, is generally very fleeting as your body adapts to the new surroundings.
All of life’s experiences can be approached either by wading or diving. Everything outside your comfort zone represents a new ocean of possibilities, some good and others bad. It is possible to slowly wade into these frontiers and get yourself used to the water, but it is almost always far better to simply dive in. Diving may create an immediate sense of discomfort but the overall level of pain is far less than it is to agonizingly tread into uncharted waters.
Diving is Faster
Human lives are narrowly constrained by the passage of time. Each of us only has so many tomorrows. As a result, the approach that allows us to do things with the greatest amount of efficiency and speed is generally best. Wherever the outcome of two approaches is almost equal, the fastest method is usually superior.
Diving is fast. Unlike wading which can take weeks, months or even years to get fully accustomed, diving compresses those experiences into a single dense one. For this property of speed alone, diving is superior to wading. Because you can rapidly explore more of your environment you can adapt more rapidly.
Toastmasters is an excellent example where you see people who take either the wading or diving approach. My strategy was to simply dive in and push through the difficult anticipation phases as fast as I can. The basic speaking manual has ten projects of which I completed half in only four months. Comparably, some people choose to wade splitting all ten projects over several years making painfully slow improvements.
Diving is Less Painful
Anticipation is many times stronger than the actual event. That is why dreaming of achieving your goal feels so much stronger then when you actually get there. This is also why waiting in nervous fear to encounter something feels so much worse than the actual experience. Although it seems counter-intuitive, the most painful stage of breaking a barrier in your comfort zone is always in the moments before and not the moments afterwards.
By diving straight into things you cut short the period of anticipation, fear and pain. Although there is generally a little bit of discomfort as you transition from land to water, even this sensation is usually more comfortable than the time leading up to it. Although wading seems like it will be less painful, diving right in is actually more comfortable.
As I mentioned in a recent post, I took up a thirty day trial to combat one fear every single day. Whenever I have had to take on one of my fears, the moments when I feel the most discomfort is in the time before, not during or after the event. Surprisingly, the faster I take over the fear the easier it is. The longer you delay, the more fear grows and paralyzes you. The thing I began to notice is that the smaller I could make the difference between when I started to think about attacking a fear and actually doing it the less challenging it became.
Diving is More Fun
Jumping straight into a new experience doesn’t usually seem like it would be fun. In fact, most people would say it is the complete opposite. In truth, however, diving is actually a lot more fun than wading in. Once you understand the cycle of fear and the relief when it has past you can understand how diving straight in can actually be a lot of fun.
This is how the typical cycle for breaking out of your comfort zone occurs:
- Trigger Idea – Initially you get an idea to do something. Maybe you see a poster for Toastmasters. Perhaps a friend talks you into going skydiving with him. An attractive woman smiles at you when you are walking by.
- Imagination – Next you begin to imagination possible outcomes of the situation. Although these are generally inaccurate because you don’t have the proper experience, your mind still comes up with dozens of potential scenarios. Read more about imagination versus experimentation here.
- Fear and Anxiety – In any situation that evokes change, your mind immediately becomes very cautious. Although this probably benefitted our primitive ancestors who were chased by lions, tigers and poisonous snakes, this instinctual reaction can go out of hand in relatively safe situations. This step is when you feel the most pain and discomfort as your reptilian limbic system tries to convince your higher neocortex that this isn’t a good idea.
- Take Action – This is the most critical step of all. This is the point where either your neocortex wins and you go to a toastmaster meeting, jump out a plane or just go up and talk to her. The few seconds once you initiate action are the highest source of anxiety and fear as your limbic system makes its last attempt to wrestle control of your actions.
- Outcome – Here is where the fun begins. Once you finish taking action you get to observe your results. The surprising thing is that it doesn’t even matter whether you are successful. Generally you will still feel a great wave of relief even if the situation goes horribly. Not only have you broken down a personal barrier, but you are no longer sitting in fear. Of course, if you are successful then you get the tremendous thrill of that experience.
Since diving compresses the first four steps into a much shorter time period than wading does, you get to have the fun of the outcome without the pain of the preparation.
So How Can You Dive More?
At this point you are probably nodding your head and thinking that, while diving makes logical sense, you still don’t feel capable of doing it. Even after you’ve heard me discuss the benefits of taking quick action against your fears and in breaking your comfort zone, many people will still continue to wade because they can’t bring themselves to dive. So the real question is how can you dive more?
Take Immediate Action
The first step to diving more is to realize that the more you start wading the harder it is to dive. Fear creates the greatest influence the longer you let it grow. If you make your decisions and take action within minutes of getting a trigger idea, you can greatly limit the amount of fear you experience.
If you get in the habit of making fear oriented decisions with seconds after they come to you, then you don’t allow fear to swell inside you. Giving yourself a time limit where you have only thirty seconds or so to make your decision, you won’t give your limbic system time to flood your body with adrenaline and feel the fear associated. So when a friend asks you if you would be willing to give a presentation at an event, if you only give yourself a few seconds to make the decision you don’t allow the fear to swell up inside you.
When you make your decision, ensure that you cut off all routes of exit. So if you decide to join Toastmasters, call a friend to make sure you show up to the meeting. If you get enough leverage on yourself to make backing out impossible then your fears will subside as your limbic system accepts this course of action as an inevitability.
The key factor that determines whether you will overcome your fear is your internal supply of courage. Please note that courage is not the absence of fear, but your ability to overcome it. Courageous people manage to do what terrifies them, so building your courage won’t reduce the fear you experience when you face a completely new situation, but it will increase your ability to handle it.
Like all character traits, courage improves with training. If you regularly challenge your fears you can overcome greater and greater ones. The key is to start with what you can handle. Try diving into as many fears as you can, but if you can’t tackle the biggest ones to start, don’t worry too much as you will get better with practice. Like a weightlifter you must be able to lift 100 pounds before you can lift 105.
Use Your Environment
What would happen to you if you were standing on the edge of a diving board looking down at the water when someone came up behind you and gave you a push. After you finished drying yourself off and strangling the jerk who did this you might start to think to yourself. Would I have been able to dive in without that push? Getting pushed into the water made it far easier to jump than if you had to do it through your own momentum.
Utilizing an environment that will push you towards expanding your horizons can be one of the best ways to increase your diving ability. There are several ways to do this, but here are just a few:
- Join a supportive organization like Toastmasters
- Make friends with people who are already doing the things you fear
- Set clear goals for conquering your fears
- Find supportive people who will encourage you
- Avoid people that are negative or ambivalent towards breaking down their own comfort zones
Life can either be done through wading or diving right in. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to suffer through a slow wade into the vast opportunities life has to offer. I prefer to dive right into experiences, even those that scare me. Break through your comfort zone and dive right into that ocean of wonders and new experiences.