Stepping Into Your Learning Zone

The comfort zone is a mental place, or behavioural state of safety, within which there’s little anxiety or stress. In this anxiety-free zone there are few challenges. As a result,
staying there for too long could lead to feelings of boredom and stagnation, both in one’s personal and professional lives. Stepping out of this zone provides an opportunity to learn
and experience new things.

Comfort zones come in different sizes and shapes. Some prefer stepping out a little at a time, whereas others are happy to plunge into the unknown with their eyes closed. Wherever you are on that scale; one thing is certain, sooner or later every one of us will need to step out – either by choice or otherwise. Life has a way of throwing curveballs when it’s least expected; we may be dragged out of our comfort zones kicking and screaming. Think about how many people lost their jobs during the last Global Financial Crisis and were sent flying out of their comfort zones.

In 1908 an experiment conducted with mice, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson found that stimulation up to a certain level increased performance, but any stimulation above that level causes performance to deteriorate. Based on that research the Yerkes-Dodson Law emerged. This law depicts three major states a person can be
in: disengagement, flow and frazzle. Those mental states relate directly to the comfort zone and to two additional zones situated outside it:
Comfort zone: a place, situation or mental state where one feels safe or at ease (and often
Learning (or courage) zone: area outside the comfort zone where there’s just enough stimulus and anxiety to drive productivity and flow.
Panic (or terror) zone: area furthest away from the comfort zone, after the learning zone, where there’s too much stimulus and/or anxiety. In this zone productivity tends to decline.

As Daniel H. Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” puts it: “If you’re too comfortable, you’re not productive. And if you’re too uncomfortable, you’re not productive. Like Goldilocks, we can’t be too hot or too cold.” So it’s important to learn and be aware of that little zone between our comfort and panic zones.

I was happy to find out that there was another zone outside of my comfort zone that wasn’t the panic zone! I used to resist getting out of my comfort zone because without
knowing how to step into the learning zone and staying there, I quickly took on too much, and ended up crossing the line to the panic zone.

The size of each person’s learning zone depends on the individual’s personality and comfort with change and the unknown. The good news is that the learning zone needs
not stay the same. It can expand the longer we stay there. With practice, it can become a sweet spot where magic happens!

For example, I remember when I first gave a lightning talk at a meetup (I am an introvert – being in the spotlight does not come naturally to me). Agreeing to do the lightning talk took
me into my learning zone, almost all the way to the edge of my panic zone. Even agreeing to do it (weeks before the event) felt uncomfortable to me. Then came time to prepare
for the presentation. Every time I thought about starting I had butterflies in my stomach. Each of those times I was stepping into my courage zone, and every time I decided to
work and hang in there a little more, I felt it became (slightly) easier. That is the great thing about staying in the learning zone: it is just uncomfortable enough to push us to a place
where we don’t want to go, but not too much that we may be overwhelmed.

Learning is at the core of a tester’s role and learning is a process that involves venturing out into the unknown, processing existing knowledge, asking (sometimes
uncomfortable) questions. Accordingly, being comfortable with stepping out of our comfort zone can prove to be a crucial skill for testers who take their career seriously.

 “In order to do your job you have to learn, learn, learn. Testing is learning. Testing is all about learning. Testing is made of learning. It’s just like being a snowman where snow is learning! That is what testing is all about. You can’t go wrong as a tester if you learn, learn, learn, learn.”

James Bach – Testing in an Agile Software Development Team 

To me, personally, this topic is current and relevant as I have had to step into my own learning zone often in the past few months. When the time came for me to present my first lightning talk, I walked right into my panic zone, mostly because I was not prepared for that step, and didn’t have any practice spending time in my learning zone. Last year I gave another lightning talk, this time at CAST 2013, which was again a panic moment. But with each one of those experiences I learned something new, and a few weeks ago I stepped out of my comfort zone once more. I gave my first full track presentation at the Let’s Test conference. The lessons I learned from previous experiences, as well as the time I spent in my learning and panic zones helped me to be better prepared this time. Here are some things I learned from these experiences that I hope can help you too, if you want to spend more time in your learning zone:

1- Identify your motivation
As Leah Stockley mentioned in her candid blog post, we are all capable of changing, even our deeper traits. All we need is the right motivation. Once you identify why you want to do something, it makes it easier to follow through, especially when you have to step out into the unknown. Channel that motivation, remember it every time you are about to cross the line into the panic zone. That should help you to stay within the bounds of the learning zone a little longer.

2- Change the way you see anxiety
It is true that you can still learn without leaving your comfort zone, but the pace is often slower. I can quickly step into the panic zone once I step out of my comfort zone, so I don’t look forward to that feeling of unease. But I have discovered that if I want to learn fast, experience new things and expand my learning zone, I shouldn’t see fear and anxiety as enemies. In some circumstances these feelings can be a sign that learning, growth and excitement is ahead, if only we learn and practice to keep it to an optimum level.

3- Become more comfortable with failure
Let’s be honest, no one wants or likes to fail, but the harsh reality is we all fail – at something, sometime. There is no point to avoid doing something based on the fear of failing. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t plan and prepare for success, but being paralyzed by the fear of failure doesn’t make sense. We can learn just as much from failure as from success – sometimes more. Sharing our failures and what we’ve learned from them, can be a powerful tool to help us overcome fear, with the added benefit that others can learn from us and not make the same mistakes.

4- Identify your learning style
It can be easier to venture out into the learning zone if you know your learning style and use that knowledge to adapt your experiences to it. There are several learning style models. Find one you most identify with and next time you step out, try to incorporate your learning style. Here are two popular learning models:
– David Kolb’s Experimental Learning theory outlines two related approaches to grasp       experience: Concrete and Abstract Experience and two approaches to transform experiences: Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation.
– Neil Flamming’s VAK Model categorizes learning styles as: visual, auditory, reading-writing and kinesthetic learners.

5- Be proactive about learning
Having to step out of your comfort zone under pressure is not an ideal situation. Take control of your learning. Pick something you have a passion for, the right motivation to do, and are just uncomfortable enough to want to do something to learn more about it.

6- Don’t do it alone                                                                                                                                                     I have a tendency to try new things on my own. It is not only safer that way, but if I fail, no one will see it or know about it. The problem is doing things solo can make it more difficult to follow through. When push comes to shove, if we don’t have anyone to be accountable to (or cheer us on), it is easier to give up. In my experience, having a coach is a great way to have someone support and guide you as you travel through unchartered waters. Coaches can give you the right combination of encouragement, challenge and accountability to help you make the best of your time in the learning zone.

Getting used to the feeling of productive discomfort is an acquired taste. It will take practice and perseverance to get there. If you want to accelerate your learning, be productive, and live outside of the coziness of your comfort zone you may need to make a conscious decision to spend more time in your learning zone. If you do so, it’s possible the next time life throws you a curveball, you may be better prepared to cope with it as your learning zone gets broader. And you may become more comfortable outside your comfort zone by spending more time in your learning zone.

About the Author
Alessandra Moreira is a student and an advocate for the context-driven(CD) school of testing. Ale started testing in 2000 in Sydney, Australia and since has worked in diverse industries and a variety of roles. Ale’s experience working as a CD tester in highly scripted environments has given her a passion to awaken the potential in testers. Ale works on projects such as Weekend Testing ANZ where, as the organizer and facilitator, she has the opportunity to help and empower other testers in their own journey. Ale currently lives and works in Miami FL, blogs at is @testchick on Twitter.


One response to “Stepping Into Your Learning Zone”

  1. Dear Alessandra, I found your article about the comfort zone really helpful. I could draw analogies from different times and aspects of my life which relate to all four suggestions.

    I had a set of smaller sharp experiences, the UK financial crash of 2008, single motherhood and then a massive whammy – a school management, which in the face of school closure, tried to fire teachers rather than pay redundancy. and Just following this, I worked on a short contract which did not become permanent for any particular reason. During this time, my mother passed away, and I worked with in an unfamiliar environment.
    Until recently, I haven’t been able to separate out those fast changing dark events. It paved the way however for a life change- to teach in China. This, though positive, has meant selling my home, and seeing my grown children only twice a year. The term ‘comfort zone’ doesn’t cut it.

    The last ten years has made me more steely and less inclined to soak up soft words of advice from people who have had to bear far less, and are able to rationalise their lives with a great deal of family and familiar support. And on the positive side, to know that educational organisations and hard working teachers and human beings still coalesce, somewhere in the world! I am not surprised that the brain drain in the UK is striking so deeply, so quickly: Freedom without accountability of the well being of workers in organisational models in the UK has created a monster!

    I do feel that I can be more useful to colleagues and children here and I am learning far more in a positive environment. I have also been able to cope with minor changes and be patient and confident that life will settle. There is far less emotional support for my family back in the UK. This means that ultimately, challenges should not be recognised as ‘adventures’. it could be destabilising. Passing through the comfort zone has to be trodden very delicately when we have others who are reliant on us, and always will be. We cannot go hapless into the world. There are in fact opportunities at every turn.

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