The novel and the unexpected comes with a dose of anxiety. This nervousness will only help you in your career.
Guest contributor Thaís Moraes
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” first reads like an outworn self-help cliché. But I tried it. And I have to tell you that this outworn self-help cliché worked for me. I’m a Brazilian researcher who came to Germany in April 2014 for a two-year postdoc, alone, without speaking a word of German, without knowing anyone, and without even knowing the city. What could have been a complete disaster turned out more than great. I’m very pleased I left my comfort zone.
The comfort zone is a physiological state where someone experiences low levels of stress and doesn’t feel at risk or unsafe. We can also call it routine; there’s not much chance of any surprises. Like when you’re at the bench performing an everyday experiment – the one that you’ve already done thousands of times, in the same way, at that same bench, surrounded by these same colleagues. You know how to do it and how it will end. Sounds boring? Probably. But when you’re standing in front of 200 other scientists in your first oral presentation at a big conference, you’ll probably miss that bench. There’s nothing wrong in staying in the comfort zone. But leaving it can make a difference both in your personal and professional life.
In 1908 the psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson described the Yerkes- Dodson law, which consists of an observed relationship between stimulation (arousal) and performance. Low levels of stimulation leads to steady performance. And performance improves as stimulation increases until a point where the stimulation is too high, becoming damaging instead of beneficial.
But how do you use this concept in your career? I believe that the life of a scientist is always at the border of the comfort zone. I know from my own experience that allowing yourself to have a little bit more of the “good” stress can be positive. So, here are some of my suggestions for developing your career at the edge of the comfort zone:
Initiate a project in a different area of knowledge than the one you’re used to. Leaving the comfort zone can be challenging. To start a project in a new area requires reading and researching the literature, learning new terminologies, and getting to know the people working in the field. But you’ll also expand your scientific knowledge, get insights for your current work, establish collaborations, and boost your creativity.
Go to another city or country for your studies. Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. He said “I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges… we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”
It’s a big step to move to a new city. OK, it might not be “one giant leap for mankind,” but it can be truly rewarding. And not just in terms of your professional life – you can also gain a lot in your personal life. Changing the environment means you can learn new skills, amplify your network, gather different views about research, and learn to deal with cultural differences in the workplace. Experience abroad is also valued when you’re applying for jobs.
Present your research to other research groups, or join conferences with a different audience than you’re used to. Speaking in public is a challenge for many, and is a common “uncomfortable zone”. But if you’re used to presenting your work to a regular audience this may not represent a challenge anymore. In presenting your work to new faces, you may get anxious and scared. This can be the stimulus needed to upgrade your performance. For example, a revision of your speech and the way you explain your research can lead to the improvement of your communication skills. So, if you’re used to attending the same conference every year, it might be interesting to join a different one.
When you’re in front of those 200 other scientists in that oral presentation at that conference, you’d probably rather be back at your familiar bench. When we’re far away from our comfort zone we want to come back to it. It’s normal, and maybe even advisable. It’s a bit like travelling: it’s daunting to organise and plan, but awesome when you’re out there. And when you do come home, you bring all of the amazing experiences and knowledge you’ve learned back with you.
Thaís Moraes is a research fellow currently at Heidelberg University in Germany, where she researches Dengue virus. She is interested in how science can help us lead healthier and happier lives.