When people talk about getting “out of their comfort zones,” they are talking about vulnerability. Think of the last time you felt truly vulnerable. Perhaps it was great worry for your own or your family’s health during the pandemic. Maybe it was an embarrassing event in full view of colleagues or professional peers. Perhaps you had to admit to something you were not proud of that could jeopardize your future. Maybe it was a time of sheer terror when you were physically afraid for your safety or the safety of someone you love. Maybe it was a time you revealed something about yourself or your feelings to someone new in your life. If you’re like me, maybe it was simply the last time your teenager borrowed the car to go out with friends.
Generally speaking, we do not like vulnerability. We avoid it when we can. We struggle with it when we have to. We minimize or eliminate it wherever possible. And yet, vulnerability traces that razor- edge frontier between life’s more severe experiences and our own undiscovered selves. Life on that frontier is un-mapped and often unfolds unpredictably, beyond our plans and expectations. For most of us, it is discomfort by definition.
Discomfort zone experiences require a special kind of self- permission to become vulnerable in the face of the unknown, both inwardly and outwardly. This internal permission to put ourselves on the edge must constantly work against the powerful forces constantly pulling us back from that edge. Our comfort zones have a strong gravity well, seductively and almost irresistibly calling us back like Siren songs into what we think is safe, appropriate, positive, or rational. These Siren songs would seem to protect us from vulnerability and take the form of “responsible” habits of mind, justifications and skills for avoiding risk, and internal voices disguised as wisdom that point out all possible fears and dangers. To stand on the frontier of a discomfort zone is to confront these accumulated forces head-on, and it is no small matter.
Experience Design Leaders (the subject of my book "Designing Transformative Experiences") become skilled at designing "Risk Invitations" for the people they lead. But they know that the Siren songs of our comfort zones, while offering a certain veneer of safety, can also unintentionally lead us into season-less worlds of dis-engagement and numbness. And we know that vulnerability, far from being a liability to minimize, is the essential vehicle leading to the discomfort zones where learning, growth, and change occur. The self-permission our experiencers need in order to inhabit this vulnerability comes in the form of carefully calculated risk.
What Kinds of Risk Are Transformative? As noted screenwriting teacher Robert McKee would teach his students about dramatic structure and motivation, “We give the highest value to those things that demand the highest risk—our freedom, our lives, our souls” (Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting [New York: ReganBooks, 1997]). Our sense of risk has an inverse relationship to our sense of agency. Agency is our power to affect an experience as an agent of change. Our sense of agency is how aware of that we are. It is what we believe ourselves to be capable of. If something is low risk for us, we have a high sense of agency that we are capable of handling whatever it is. We feel more comfortable and confident, sometimes even a bit more than we should.
Alternately, if something is high risk for us, we have a low sense of agency that we are capable of handling it and we feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, or fearful. What we perceive as risky for us describes our vulnerabilities and defines our personal “discomfort zones.” Experience Design Leaders use this knowledge to artfully design experiences that invite people to take pro-growth risks of different kinds.
There are four critically important kinds of risk I discuss in in my workshops that appear in nearly every transformative experience: physical, emotional, intellectual, and social.
Physical risk: These are situations that put our bodies in harm’s way, like astronauts sitting atop a fueled and smoking rocket, fighting in a war, free-climbing a high cliff, or even a child learning to swim or ride a bicycle. Physical risk includes uncertainty that we will emerge whole and healthy. Physical risks also present opportunities to increase our physical capacities and have new sensory and kinesthetic experiences.
Emotional risk: These are situations that put our hearts on the line. They expose us to emotional and spiritual uncertainty and make us vulnerable to heartbreak, loss, feelings of rejection, exclusion, or being lost. They also present opportunities for us to experience empathy, compassion, and spiritual insight in ourselves and others.
Intellectual risk: These situations challenge our strategic and rational minds. They include problems and problem solving that require our knowledge, our creativity, and our capacity to assess, learn, and adapt. These situations hold consequences (good and bad) for our continued intellectual growth, self-esteem, and overall well-being.
Social risk: These are situations that test our connections to others, including our close, intimate relationships, our family dynamics, our affiliations with colleagues, our communities, and other more durable or even transient social cohorts. Social risks make us vulnerable to losing our healthy connections and/or building unhealthy ones, or even failing to make new connections. But social risks also present us with opportunities to forge new positive attachments to others, raise our standing in social circles, and have new social experiences.
As we often explore in my workshops, people can have a transformative experiences ranging from death-defying adventures on mountain tops to simply walking to the local coffee shop. You could get that new job or stretch assignment at work that changes your entire trajectory. You could meet your love on a hiking trail. You could be asked to volunteer for an important but difficult cause that alters how you see your place in the world. You could be faced with an enormous loss or an unexpected opportunity that changes your plans dramatically and demands changes in you.
All of these include some combination of the four kinds of risk. Part of our job as designers of transformative experiences is to craft and embed risk invitations into the discomfort zone experiences we create for our experiencers. For each risk invitation, a response is called for. A risk decision needs to be made.
Insightful experience designers are not only able to recognize the elements of discomfort zone experiences but can help shape and sequence those elements as they guide people through the journey of living them.
To engage in a transformative experience is to embark on an inward pilgrimage that can be defined as an encounter between life’s harsher horizons (invariably where discomfort, uncertainty, and vulnerability preside) and the center of your own being. As someone embarking on a transformative experience, one needs to ask the question, What pilgrimage within yourself is needed to meet the frontiers of your life where meaningful change can occur? Or put another way, What is the inner journey that will bring you into contact with the unknown while also, ironically, returning you to the very source of your own self ?
Designers of transformative experiences must guide experiencers to these kinds of self-reflective questions as we also help people live the outward metaphor of the journey in terms of risk opportunities. What kinds of risk invitations are we making in our experience designs -- and even in our own lives? Let's be strategic, bold, and open with these important questions.