When, in college, my best friend asked me to try a comedy improv class, it was absurd to me.
For most of my early life, my self-identity had been grounded in sports. I played Division I basketball, I was incredibly competitive, and I certainly never participated (or even thought to partake) in theater. But when I was studying abroad on Semester at Sea, a global education program for university students, I was suddenly faced with the opportunity, and the encouragement of my friend, to take an acting class. It was simply not who I was.
Taking the class was completely out of my comfort zone. Which is just another way of saying that I was scared.
After significant prodding, I ended up going, and boy was I was terrible. But it was strangely fun, and with more prodding from my friend I continued to attend night after night. Eventually, I even joined an improv group that performed for an audience of 400 people, and much to my surprise I delivered a few lines that had the audience in hysterics. Suddenly, a piece of myself that I never knew was even there became activated. Improv was, it turned out, very much part of who I was. I just hadn’t discovered that piece yet.
Today, I often think about how this decision to step out of my comfort zone, and other decisions like it, has served me well.
Improv classes taught me that I enjoyed off-the-cuff speeches and engaging with a live audience, skills that became incredibly useful to the nonprofit organization I later founded, Pencils of Promise. My speeches were the primary way of engaging people with our mission of global education, and the most successful driver of major donors over the years as well. It all started with a comedy class.
As important as stepping out of my comfort zone was back when I was in college, I think it’s becoming even more important today.
In our competitive economy, being a well-rounded worker is key for longevity and endurance. We must be adaptable and versatile. Jobs increasingly require combinations of skills, like marketing and data analytics or software engineering and business problem-solving.
The only way to build these diverse skills is to leave your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to involve taking a class that you see as absurd, as it was for me. There’s a physical version—removing yourself from your immediate physical space for experiential value. Then relationships—altering who you surround yourself with to move past the comfort of immediacy, including friendship, colleagues or romantic partners. And lastly, there’s leaving our mental and emotional comfort zones, meaning choosing to engage in experiences new to us. All of these psychological dimensions provide you with a different set of abilities and skills, and they have the power to move you forward in a professional context as well.
More recently, I’ve taken up mountain biking for the first time in my adult life. It’s a sport that challenges me in ways I’d never experienced throughout most of my athletic career as a basketball player. Although I got into it for personal fitness, it’s surprisingly enabled me to build deeply authentic relationships with new friends that I’m meeting through a shared passion for the outdoors. Who knew.
If you’re not just a little uncomfortable from time to time, you may not be learning anything.
Adam Braun is the CEO and co-founder of MissionU.