Working in the growth zone: between stretch and panic

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The other night in mixed martial arts, I had my tip test, an interim exam before testing for a full-color belt.

You work with one partner all class, running through different drills, so that the instructor can evaluate your technique.

I always have great training partners. They are focused, hard-working and strong. Usually, they are in my age and belt range.

This time, I was paired with a teenage black belt. Thankfully for me, he was just recovering from a cold, so instead of running four circles for every one of mine, he just ran two. His reflexes are lightening fast, and he is always the first to finish a set of 25  burpees (a torturous exercise devised by Royal H. Burpee in the 1930’s, probably as some form of  payback for a rough childhood).

From the first drill, I could feel my heart pounding. He started with a much faster pace than I was used to, and I wondered if I could sustain it the whole test.

But after adjusting to him, I started to notice something: I felt better. I pushed harder. And my head was more in the game, because if I did not pay attention, I would actually get smashed in the face.

Nothing like clear incentives.

It made me think about all the areas of my life where I need to get out of my comfort zone, and into my growth zone.

Your growth zone

Your growth zone happens right between stretching yourself to do better than your best, and feeling overly challenged and panicked.

Every part of your life has growth zones: parenting, fitness, work, romance.

If you keep doing the same old thing, your performance will not improve, and in many cases, it will begin to suffer. That which does not continue to grow usually starts to die.

5 Ways to find your growth zone

  1. Know your best.
    If you are a blogger, know which post was your best-written, or most effective at bringing traffic to your blog. Study it, and remember what you did to elicit great performance. If you are a runner, know your fastest time.
  2. Find people who make you feel slightly uncomfortable because they are so good.
    If you have been successful, it is easy to get used to always being at the top of the class. People pat you on the back, and you get that self-satisfied, slightly glib attitude.
    Find someone who runs circles around you. After your shock wears off, you may feel some passion burning in your chest. Passion to push yourself, to study them and understand what it is they do that makes them so great. Ask any great performing team in a corporation, or sports, or partnership what makes their relationship great, and most will tell you that every person pulls equal weight, and pushes for mastery and personal development.
  3. Switch up your routine.Monotony breeds complacency. If you are a soccer nut, try a Zumba class. If you love to write, try a weekend singing class. Pushing yourself in new directions will open up your brain, and your body. To borrow from my self defense background, the safest people are those who are alert, aware and slightly paranoid that something scary is coming around the corner.
  4. Take new risks.
    Put yourself in situations where you really stretch  your limits. Put out a business offer than is more complete and expensive than you have ever done. Sign up for a marathon, even if you don’t think you can do it. Submit an article to the most prestigious publication you can think of, even if you don’t feel totally ready.
  5. Practice humility.
    It is impossible to be in the growth zone and not fail, sometimes publicly. When you do, take your losses with grace, always looking for lessons to apply to the next time.  If you push yourself in the growth zone, you will fail, but learn a tremendous amount.

The comfort zone is safe, reliable and pleasant. It is also deadly.

The growth zone brings you alive.

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12 Responses to “Working in the growth zone: between stretch and panic”

  1. Humility. I soooo get all the other parts of growing and then we get to this one. It’s real. And now that I’m taking your PowerBoost and applying so many techniques, I’m failing as well as finding success.

    I think about stories you’ve told, Pam, about times you’ve failed…in public, and I remember to go back and simply say how sorry I am.

    Humility hurts bad until I drink it in and then, interestingly, it just becomes part of the juice.

    Bitter flavor is part of what makes a whole meal satisfying. Like how a wonderful coffee really rounds out a meal. I’m beginning to think of humility like this. The rounding flavor that makes the whole package come together.

    Thanks for this insight.

  2. Jeff Bronson says:

    “That which does not continue to grow usually starts to die.”

    Or in the case of many, self medicates through a series of artificial pacifiers disguised as positive activity.

    It’s definitely true, finding and surpassing your comfort zone works wonders for both your confidence and skill level.

  3. Marie says:

    Now can you now write about how to handle veering into the “Panic” end of the spectrum?

    Using the car driving analogy, perhaps it’s about trying most of the time to “hover” or keep your center of balance in “growth” lane, while allowing yourself to occassionally dip into adjacent “comfortable” or “panic” lanes on either side when it might serve you (to help make a complete turn left or right to change to a completely different road) but then getting good at regaining control and returning to the center “growth” lane when one has undesirably veered off into either adjacent lane.

  4. Robinsh says:

    So I have to find one who makes me uncomfortable ?

    What is the problem then, they are many and I have to only study them hard instead of ignoring them saying that they are great.

    Thanks for writing this life changing article now I’ll change my perspective towards my well wishers.

  5. playcrane says:

    Ths reminds me of Lev Vygotsky’s concept called zone of proximal development in child psychology (apples to adults as well). The guided help others give is called scaffolding. Interesting concepts. Check them out.


  6. Great advice Pam. First of all may I just take a moment to hate burpees with the fire of a thousand suns…

    You’re right on about finding people to play-up with. I did this my entire athletics career and it made a HUGE difference in how far I was able to go. I guess I hadn’t thought about intentionally doing it in my business. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. It’s really easy to want to stick to a certain groove when you’ve found it, and not push yourself harder and further. This is how we plateau, and I’ve seen it happen in my business. I’m pushing myself to do more creative work alongside my consulting work. Even though I’ve been doing art for years, I feel like I’m the newbie in this whole ball game, and everyone has X years of practice up on me. But at the same time, it’s exciting to learn from them, and learn on my own.

  8. Lisa-Marie Cabrelli says:

    I see this principle in action Pam every time my husband plays soccer against 20 something’s. He always has his best games:-) I love the idea of adding this to weekly metrics – or at least making sure you have one growth item on your weekly task list.

  9. Tom says:


    There’s a very important fundamental truth that you’re addressing here, which is: you body and mind respond best when put under stress – not too much so that you break down, but enough to stimulate optimal growth.

    This is the core pillar of training in sport, but for some reason we neglect to extend it to the rest of our lives. Cal Newport over at Study Hacks ( is highly supportive of this idea of discomfort in learning through deliberate practice, and has some pretty cool thoughts on it.

    Thanks for the insight!

  10. faisal says:

    I feel one of the most important parts of growth is being regularly changing and brain storming, about what you are doing and where you are going wrong. Perhaps a weekly review would be nice.

  11. Ali Davies says:

    Your post just gave me an idea – might be useful to add frequency of feeling outside our comfort zone, stretched and a little uncomfortable to our weekly and monthly metrics – on the basis that we need to make sure we are in that place regularly for new results to happen, and what we measure grows.

  12. Beth Herman says:

    Pam, I went to a dressage clinic with my teacher today and saw a whole new level of possibility. Sitting on the uncomfortable bench surrounded by half-serious riders, I felt the pull of the next level. I want to ride every horse better than I do. I want to bring the lessons learned with the horses to bear in client coaching sessions. I want to trust that this is enough. Thanks for the thoughtful post.