When I first left my parents’ small farm at eighteen to move to “the city” for college, I was part terrified, part excited, and completely outside my comfort zone. As I found then, and have countless times in the years since, no worthwhile aspiration can be accomplished from within our comfort zone. Only in giving up the security of the known can we create new opportunity, build capability, and grow influence. As we do, we expand the perimeter of our ‘Courage Zone’ and our confidence to take on bigger challenges in the future.

It’s a lesson that was reinforced in my interviews with accomplished leaders across a diverse range of fields while researching my latest book Stop Playing Safe. While each had forged their own path to success – either up an organizational ladder or as an entrepreneur – the common thread of wisdom they all shared was that in todays competitive and fast changing workplace, we can never hope to achieve success unless we’re willing to embrace change and risk the discomfort of failure. In short, we must be willing to get comfortable with the discomfort involved with taking risks.

One of those leaders was Lori Garver, who worked her way up in the male-dominated aerospace industry from an administrative assistant role to the Deputy Director of NASA. Like so many other successful people, Lori has always been driven more by what inspires her than what scares her. She’s always been willing to challenge assumptions, and push the boundaries of possibility. She’s never let her fear of not having what it takes keep her from stepping beyond the confines of her comfort zone and expanding her confidence to take risks, try new things, speak up and act with the courage that has been a hallmark of her leadership at NASA. While it’s easy to assume that Lori is covered with psychological Teflon, the reality is that along her road to success, she experienced numerous setbacks, along with her fair share of criticism. She just hasn’t let her fear of it hold her back.

Throughout our careers we must continually assess whether we are letting our fear of failure or losing face keep us from taking the actions, and engaging in the conversations, that will move us forward and make the impact we want. Again and again, we have to decide:
Do I keep doing what’s always been done, or challenge old assumptions ad try new approaches to problems?
Do I proactively seek new challenges or just manage those I already have?
Do I risk being exposed and vulnerable, or act to protect my pride and patch of power?
Do I ask for what I really want, or just for what I think others want to give me?
Do I ‘toot my horn’ to ensure others know what I’m capable of, or just hope my efforts will be noticed?
Do I speak my mind or bite my lip, lest I ruffle feathers or subject myself to criticism?

Of course, being willing to take a risk doesn’t mean everything you try will work out. But as every successful person will tell you, it’s only by being willing to make mistakes and try something new that you can ever accomplish more than what’s been done before. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Nothing worthwhile has ever been accomplished with a guarantee of success.” Nothing ever will be.

Too often we let our mistakes and setbacks define us. Yet, as Dr Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology once said, “It’s not our failures that determine our future success, but how we explain them to ourselves.” Likewise, if you knew that no matter what happened, you could handle it, what actions would you take that you aren’t taking now? What conversations would you engage in that you’ve been putting off? Where would you step out onto center stage more fully and boldly in your own life – and in doing so, open up the possibility for new opportunities, new relationships, new alliances, new ideas to take bloom?

Cast your mind ahead ten years from now and think about the life you want to be living then. What do you want to be doing? With whom? Who do you want to have become in the process?

Ten years from now there will be people who have achieved extraordinary success. While we don’t know who they will be, one thing is sure – they won’t be people who have stayed inside their comfort zone. Rather, they will be people who have continued to stretch themselves, even when things are going smoothly, and who have been willing to risk failure or looking foolish, knowing that the biggest risk they take is not taking any risks at all. The question is – will you be one of them?!

In our ever more cautious and competitive world, there is little security in playing safe. Being willing to give up the familiarity of the known and embrace the discomfort that comes from being outside your comfort zone is increasingly crucial to your success in work and life.

Margie Warrell is an executive coach, keynote speaker and the bestselling author of Stop Playing Safe (Wiley) and Find Your Courage (McGraw-Hill). More information at www.margiewarrell.com

by Margie Warrell