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Posted on: Sunday, 27 December 2009 by Rajiv Popat

On a bright sunny morning I find myself talking to a very smart acquaintance. The conversation revolves around how human beings in general and programmers in particular grow in their professional life.

He describes his mentoring approach using circles; where the green circle indicates your comfort zone and the red one indicates what your new assignment needs you to do.

His contention is that most managers encourage their employees do get involved with new assignments which are somewhat on these lines:

Put simply; with every new project; you are doing most of what you did in your last project and then you learn something new.

His approach to mentoring is simple; move the circles as far away from each other as practically possible; move people out of their comfort zone and see if they pull it off or breakdown and collapse.

I am myself a strong believer of getting out of your comfort zone. I have even suggested that developers should in fact bring themselves dangerously close to getting fired each year.

Having said that; I am not so sure if the approach is a universal solution to helping people grow.

Havi Brooks; for example; has a slightly different take on making people leave their comfort zone and presenting them with wild and scary challenges which make them collapse. She explains:

I can’t even tell you how many eager beaver coaches I meet at business events who can’t wait to meet people just like you, so they can drag you kicking and screaming from your comfort zone. They think they’re doing you a favor. They’re not.

They’re not doing it out of meanness, of course. They sincerely want to help. They think that if you can leave the place where you’re comfortable and try this new, scary thing, you’ll get over it already. The problem is that sometimes what you need in order to grow is more comfort. And this kind of work needs to happen where you feel safe; where you’re most comfortable.

That’s why there’s a zone for it.

In the future your grandchildren will look back on this age of insisting on people leaving their comfort zones with shock, horror and a sad shake of the head. The way we do now when we think about things like electric shock therapy and lobotomies. The atrocities of good intentions.

Instead of leaving your comfort zone, let it grow with you

Stretching is good. Gently. Learning new skills is good. Gradually.

Learning new things doesn’t have to mean leaving the comfort zone. You actually want to be growing your comfort zone. And you can do it with as much comfort as possible. At a pace and speed that are comfortable, with support from people who adore you, and adding tricks and techniques as you go.

Your comfort zone is your friend. So you have my permission to stop trying to break your way out of it and start trying to cultivate it, nourish it, grow it and be nice to it. Hey, I’m waving to you from mine — squeaky duck in hand — right now.

To be honest; I don’t have all the answers here. Each human being is different and while a hard push out of their comfort zone followed by a what-does-not-kill-you-makes-you-stronger approach might do wonders for some; some of your best developers might actually grow the fastest with a series of really gentle nudges where they are allowed to slowly and steadily increase the size of their comfort zone.

Maybe it is not about jumping out of your comfort zone; maybe it is just being on the edge of it all the time and then pushing it a little farther each time you can.

I cannot tell you if you should jump out of your comfort zone all together in an attempt to make yourself stronger or slowly grow your comfort zone every in a gradual step by step approach. If you think about it; both are 'technically' just different ways to 'grow' your comfort zone. One with hard jerks and push; the other with constant, consistent persistence.

Even though; given the choice; I might tend to lean more towards the brook's approach for the people who work with me; I am not here; dear reader; to advice you on which one of the two approaches you should take for your very own personal growth as a programmer.

What works best for you; in this case; is for you to find out yourself.

What I can tell you; however; is that even if your comfort zone is growing by a tiny-little-bit every single day of your life; and I seriously do not care what is making it grow - a hard push or a series of gentle nudges; you are probably on the right track. Focus on getting it to grow just a little wider; just a little faster each day of your life and you should be good.

I wish you good luck.