One of my favorite metaphors for personal growth is to “live in the stretch”. It reminds me to live some portion of my time outside of my comfort zone doing and learning things that feel uncomfortable.

We all have certain skills and activities we can do with our eyes closed, using muscle memory. We’re good at these things, and there are comfort and pride in our mastery.

Just like a muscle – to grow, you have to tear just a little bit, and live with the discomfort. But the outcome is tremendous: Solid well-built muscle that is bigger than before, and ready for then next tear!

And believe me, tearing the muscle by wandering into foreign territory to live in the stretch can feel like being dropped in the middle of the ocean at night alone, and being told to find the materials, build the raft, and get to land. It is crazy to have no idea what step to take next and just watch yourself rise to the occasion and figure it out!

How Much Do You Need to Stretch?

So, yes, the stretch is definitely uncomfortable. But it is the only way to grow. It’s strange, it’s scary, it’s avoidable, but it’s the only way any of us get to that next level of career, personal, or academic mastery.

You don’t want to live in this stretch 100% of the time – we all need a foot on solid ground; we all need those hours when we are the master of what we are doing and 100% confident. But I always try to stretch outside of my comfort zone often enough, and for long enough that it fosters real growth and change. Even though each time I enter it, it seems completely insane, and like I’ll never master it; all I have to do is remember the last time I lived in the stretch and thrived. And this repetition breeds even more exponential growth, because it feeds on itself!

In my work on teams, I’ve found that most people are okay living in the stretch about 20% of the time. This is that time when they are intentionally left to navigate foreign territory and figure out how to learn and be successful there. This time in the stretch take massive amounts of energy since it requires full attention, and openness to failure, brick walls, and frustration.

Because of its stress on the human system, the other 80% of the time, there is benefit in reverting to the comfort zone, taking a deep breath, and regaining the confidence to tackle the next stretch session.

And while this 20/80 relationship is typical, I’ve found it interesting to notice that the most effective leaders I’ve worked with, whether intentionally or by happenstance, reverse those percentages. They spend about 80% of their time in the stretch, trying new things, often failing, dusting off, picking themselves up, and trying again. They only spend about 20% of their time in their comfort zones. This 80/20 challenge, pushes them to be better four times faster than their 20/80 colleagues.

How Do You Keep up Confidence in the Stretch?

One of my favorite ways to thrive in while living in the stretch is to end each day by making a list of “what I know tonight that I didn’t know last night”. It keeps me from focusing on everything I still don’t know, and instead celebrates the progress made in this completely new territory. There has never been a day where something valuable wasn’t learned – whether from mistake or success, blind alley or highway, drowning or soaring, there is always forward movement. And when I sum it all up at week’s end – the progress builds my confidence to go at it again next week.

How Do We Encourage Living in the Stretch?

The most valuable thing team members gain while in the stretch is a greater understanding of the full business processes inside their organizations. Stepping outside of comfort zones forces a focus on the bigger picture. So a good way to encourage the move into discomfort is to ask some leading questions:

  1. Who or what produces the work that comes ONTO your desk?
  2. What exactly do you do with the things that come onto your desk?
  3. Who gets the things that leave your desk, and what do they do with them?

When work is passed onto someone else, brainstorm with that recipient about five ways you can add more value for them. And vice versa: when you get passed work from someone else, brainstorm about five ways they can improve their process and add more value before it hits your desk.

Going at a process like this for a week leads to a list of suggestions for process improvement, and provides the basis for a prioritization and implementation project that is just beyond the boundaries of what’s always been comfortable.

The results are always telling. When spending time in the stretch, we’re constantly learning new things and finding ways to be smarter, better, faster, and more effective.

How Does This Relate to You?

As a leader, it is critical to reward the people who stretch; and not penalize them for the inevitable mistakes they will make while living in the stretch. Set the example yourself, set the boundaries for experimentation by your team, and stand by to watch the amazing results when the whole organization begins to operate in the stretch. The results are extraordinary!