Have you ever had that feeling of butterflies in your stomach? Your heart racing, your hands starting to sweat? That horrible, crippling feeling of nervousness and fear?
Some people just seem to be naturally confident. Well good for them. But if you’re like me then that anxious feeling is an everyday experience. In fact, I think I am worse than most. I am naturally really quite shy and introverted.
The thing is, these days you can get away with being a bit socially awkward. You don’t need to speak to and get on with those who are different or unusual. The internet has opened up the whole world and allowed you to find a clique of people like you. We have the choice to just follow a nice set path through life, always staying inside our comfort zones.
But that comfort zone is just going to shrink. If you always avoid speaking to strangers, you will never get good at small talk. If you always avoid conflict, you will never learn how to resolve it. If you resign yourself to being socially awkward, you will always be socially awkward.
I still shiver at how scared I would get going into meetings with potential investors or having ‘difficult conversations’ with employees. I used to drink three or four espressos just before hand because I read that it helps boost your confidence. It did… but any benefit was probably ruined by the shakes I’d get.
But I am improving. If you knew me at school and met me again now I think you would be surprised at how much more outgoing I am. Even if you just follow me online you’d probably think I’m unusually confident. I mean how many people are comfortable putting videos of themselves online and recording voice overs for books?
There is this idea in behavioural psychology called exposure therapy. From Wikipedia:
It involves the exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to overcome their anxiety.
I like to think of it as “fake it until you make it”. If you are always forcing yourself to do things that only a confident person would do, you will eventually become that confident person. If you are always stepping outside your comfort zone, that comfort zone will grow.
I work hard to try and daily leave my comfort zone. I try and take every meeting or pitch. I force myself to go and introduce myself to people at parties. I did the Expert in a Year challenge which involved uploading videos of both my successes and my failures.
But in 2012, I took it a big step further. I decided to find something so far out of my comfort zone that after doing it nothing from day-to-day life would ever be scary again.
What did I do? I became a police officer.
Here in the UK, you can volunteer and become what is known as a special constable. You have the same uniform and powers as regular police officers and do the same front-line policing – just on a part-time unpaid basis.
Since joining, I have been dragged from my comfort zone. When you’re in uniform you have to challenge anti-social behaviour and petty crime. You can’t look the other way. In fact, you are legally liable if you don’t step in. As someone who doesn’t like calling up the pizza delivery guy, just imagine how much harder this was for me?
I have comforted sexual abuse victims, talked down people suffering from violent mental health disorders and stood tall in-between battling gangs.
It was terrifying. I was thrown in at the deep end. But when put in those situations and left without a choice but to get on with it, I did.
After all that, starting a conversation with a stranger or speaking up in a boardroom just doesn’t seem particularly scary.
There are other reasons I became a police officer. I thought it was a good public service, I was angry after the London riots and I liked the idea of speeding around in fast cars. But the main reason was to get out of my comfort zone, meet people who aren’t white and middle-class and learn to be more confident.
You don’t need to become a police officer to leave your comfort zone. But you do need to take a good look at yourself and honestly decide if you are really being challenged. Learn where your fears lie and step past them.