The other day I spoke with a former colleague, Laura, from graduate school who, following her graduate degree, had her first child. And then after what felt like no time at all, had her second… and, then, two years later a third. And between shuffling the kids off the school, desperately trying to keep the household together, and volunteering in her kids’ schools, seven, eight, nine years passed, with the professional world far in her rear view mirror.
But at some point, Laura decided it might be a good time to get back in the game. The kids were old enough; she had never quite fit in with the stay at home mom crowd; and, frankly, with her husband’s school teacher salary, they could use the money.
Now if this had been 6 months or even a year after Laura had graduated from her Master’s program, it might have been relatively easy to jump back into the job force. But nine years was a really long time – and, it felt like an incredibly daunting task to put together a resume, put herself out there, and actually try to interview for a job.
What Laura was experiencing was similar to what many people I’ve worked with and interviewed over the past several years have grappled with: the challenges of stretching outside our comfort zones. And as Laura’s situation illustrates, one of the biggest barriers of all: an exaggerated and often unrealistic set of worries about this very uncertain future.
In her case, there were three core fears. The first was an exaggerated fear about her home life – that without her at the helm, everything would “fall apart.” Bills wouldn’t get paid, things would break, the kids would be left home for hours on end. Despite the fact that her husband did actually have a relatively flexible schedule and they could potentially hire help if needed, the fear of the house falling apart was something Laura couldn’t shake in her mind. Similarly, she also feared that once she actually hit the pavement and interviewed for a job, people would be mean. They’d be tough and threatening, and ask her questions about her decisions to stay at home for all those years that would completely fluster her.
And, most importantly, she’d have no hope of responding in a positive way – this, despite the fact that she was pretty good on her feet, could practice her “pitch” with her husband and others, and that the companies she was interested in were relatively understanding type places. But still that fear too rang in her head. And then, finally, there was the issue of expertise.
Laura was interviewing for jobs that themselves were somewhat outside her comfort zone – -not exactly what she had studied in graduate school, but things she could definitely do given her personal capabilities. But she was scared to walk into a situation without knowing everything. She was terrified of being stumped, of being asked questions she simply didn’t know the answers to… and of feeling embarrassed – all, again, despite the fact that these answers were things she could practice with family, friends, or even a career coach. Finally and perhaps most importantly, Laura was afraid that she was the only one with an oddball story – that all other applicants for the job and also co-workers if she were successful would have conventional stories – studying a topic in college or graduate school and then going directly into that chosen field.
But – as you’ve probably anticipated by now – Laura was deeply surprised on every one of these fronts. And in fact, she admitted when I spoke with her (after scoring a great job, by the way) that all these fears and worries – all of them – were simply ways of avoiding something outside her comfort zone. People were nice, not intimidating. She could answer questions on her feet – even without perfect knowledge. Her family life did not fall apart – and in fact to her chagrin, her teenagers actually didn’t mind the freedom of not having her around for a few afternoons a week.
And then, finally, she definitely wasn’t the only one with a “weird” story. One guy, for example, had dropped out of school to work on a band for 12 years before going back to school and eventually taking his job at the organization. Everyone had their story and they all were different. But most of all, Laura discovered what so many people I’ve worked with – and interviewed – over the past several years have discovered: that when you take that leap, you often really end up surprising yourself.
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.