Are you comfortable?
No, not in your chair. Not on your couch, or bed, or wherever you’re reading this.
Are you comfortable in your language learning?
When you use your target language, do you stick to the things that you know how to do? Do you play it safe, and use just the resources, techniques, and learning tools that you find familiar, and easy?
Oftentimes, easy is good. Comfort is good. We do what is easy and what is comfortable to decompress, to destress, and to declutter our minds.
When we want to grow our language skills, however, comfort isn’t so good. According to research, if we aim to increase our expertise in a given skill, we need to shun what is safe, what is routine, and instead move towards pressure — towards stress and challenge.
In the first article in this series, we examined Deliberate Practice, a special type of practice that research has shown to be the most effective for improving performance in nearly any skill-based domain.
In the second article in this series, we began to take a deeper look into each of the key components of Deliberate Practice, by helping you find an expert teacher or coach to help lead your learning.
Today, we will continue our in-depth examination of Deliberate Practice by helping you focus on yet another central component: stepping out of your comfort zone.
To understand how to get out of the comfort zone, we need to first understand what it is.
What is the Comfort Zone?
A comfort zone is defined as a place or situation where one feels at ease and without stress.
You have many such comfort zones in your life. Some are wide, while others are narrow.
Within any given comfort zone, you feel competent, safe, and relatively in-control.
Beyond the comfort zone, you feel the opposite. You feel unsure, and anxious. You feel like you could fail, or fall flat on your face. According to K. Anders Ericsson, those are the feelings we have to chase if we wish to reap the benefits of deliberate practice.
“What?” I hear you say. “How can anxiety, risk, and insecurity possibly be beneficial to my learning? Can’t I just learn and improve from within my comfort zone?”
No. And here’s why.
Why You Need to Escape the Comfort Zone
In his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson uses the following example to explain how practice from within the comfort zone, is, in fact, not practice at all. He writes:
“This is the fundamental truth of any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve. The amateur pianist who took half a dozen years of lessons when he was a teenager but who for the past thirty years has been saying the same set of songs in the same way over and over again may have accumulated ten thousand hours of “practice” during that time, but he is no better at playing the piano than he was thirty years ago. Indeed, he’s probably gotten worse.” (p. 17, emphasis added).
For any learner, this passage offers two striking revelations:
- Stepping out of the comfort zone is a necessary part of any improvement.
- Staying within the comfort zone will ultimately cause your skills to worsen.
So, in keeping with our definition of the comfort zone above as stress-free conditions, if you want to improve as a language learner through deliberate practice, you will need to seek out stress.
No, not that stress. Not the crying-on-the-floor, pulling-your-hair-out type.
That’s bad stress. That does no good for anyone.
What you need to start seeking out is good stress.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
To understand the how the right type of stress leads to growth and improvement, we need to understand the necessary conditions for growth in the first place.
As living organisms, we have an innate need and desire for homeostasis.
What is homeostasis, you ask?
Homeostasis is a scientific term for stability, or balance. Our bodies have countless systems in place to maintain this stability, and to keep conditions constant from one state to the next.
A simple example of this is thirst. Our bodies want to remain in a state of having the proper amount of water. When our water levels are out of balance, we receive signals from our brains that we are thirsty, and we then know to take the steps necessary to rehydrate ourselves. Through rehydration, we restore homeostasis.
If homeostasis is the maintenance of conditions of one moment to the next, then it stands to reason that for anything to grow, change, or improve, homeostasis must be disrupted.
And this comes in the form of what we will call good stress.
For example, if you want to gain muscle, you can go to the gym and lift weights — an activity that is stressful on your muscles. If done properly, you stress your muscles just enough that you actually cause microscopic tears in your muscle tissue. Now, this may sound like a negative, but it is through repairing the damaged tissue and simultaneously adding new tissue that your muscles get bigger, stronger, and more resistant to damage in the future.
If, however, you try to acclerate the process of muscle growth by (for example) lifting weights that are too heavy, too quickly, the process backfires. You’ve moved into bad stress territory. What were once microscopic tears are now too big for the body to handle, and you’ve officially injured yourself, in the form of a muscle strain.
So, good stress slightly unbalances your body’s internal homeostasis to allow for adaptation, while bad stress is anything that throws homeostasis too far out of balance and risks injury.
These examples from biological systems for homeostasis can be applied to our mental systems for homeostasis — also known as our comfort zones.
In Peak, Ericsson writes:
“In the brain, the greater the challenge, the greater the changes — up to a point. Recent studies have shown that learning a new skill is much more effective at triggering structural changes in the brain than simply continuing to practice a skill that one has already learned. On the other hand, pushing too hard for too long can lead to burnout and ineffective learning. The brain, like the body, changes most quickly in that sweet spot where it is pushed outside — but not too far outside — its comfort zone.” (p. 41)
Following this logic, any improvement in your target language skills will require you to add new, more complex skills to your repertoire. Doing what you already know how to do is simply not enough. You need to learn to challenge yourself.
The trick is knowing how to challenge yourself appropriately — to invite the proper amounts of good stress —while making sure you don’t go overboard into bad stress and burnout.
You need to tip the scales of homeostasis, but not knock them over.
Let’s explore how:
3 Steps to Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone
If you want to get out of your comfort zone without risking burnout, then Ericsson provides some excellent advice:
“Getting of your comfort zone means (1) trying to do something that you couldn’t do before. (2) Sometimes you may find it relatively easy to accomplish that new thing, and then you keep pushing on. But sometimes you run into something that stops you cold and it seems like you’ll never be able to do it. (3) Finding ways around these barriers is one of the hidden keys to […] practice. (Peak, p. 19, emphasis and numbering added)
Let’s examine these point by point, and apply them to your language learning:
1. Try to Do What You Cannot Do
You can’t expand your skills without trying new and unfamiliar things. Whatever level you’re at in your target language, you probably have a good idea of the activities you feel that you’re bad at, or even the ones that downright scare you. If you want to improve your abilities in your target language, those are the exact activities that you need to spend time deliberately practicing.
In this case, I recommend starting with your ultimate goals and working backwards.
Say, for example, your ultimate goal is to spend hours at a time speaking to French people entirely in their language. Right now, you can barely have a conversation for a few minutes without reverting to English.
The solution here is not to immediately book a two-hour tutoring session and try to go English-free the entire time. That’s bad stress, and you will burn out.
So you need to work backwards, and think up less and less stressful versions of your ultimate goal, until you’ve found something that you still cannot yet do, but isn’t so scary that you dread doing it.
So, instead of trying to speak all in French for two hours, how about trying to speak all in French for five minutes?
That doesn’t sound so bad. So you try it.
2. If It’s Easy, Keep Pushing Forward
You find a language partner, and you resolve to spend five minutes speaking in only French. You’ve never done this before.
And what do you know? It’s actually easy! You spend the entire five minutes conversing in the language of Molière, and you barely break a sweat.
What do you do now?
First of all, don’t stop. You started by working backwards from your goal, and now that you’ve found something you can do, you need to push forward again until you reach something you can’t do.
Returning to our example, you push forward and speak French for six minutes. Seven. Then eight.
You continue on.
3. If You’re Blocked, Find a Way Around
Once you reach ten minutes, you suddenly choke. You’re mentally exhausted, and English words and phrases gradually find themselves back into your once pristine French conversation. You try again and again, and you realize that your French stamina always tapers off once you’ve gotten near the ten minute mark.
Have you failed? No. You’ve just reached a barrier. Something is in your way, and you need to figure out what it is.
When you reach a blockage such as this, Ericsson recommends that instead of continuing on and trying the same thing over and over again, you try to approach the activity from a different angle, preferably with outside help:
“The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach. Someone who is already familiar with the sorts of obstacles you’re likely to encounter can suggest ways to overcome them. (Peak, p.20)”
In our French example, perhaps the problem isn’t that you don’t have the mental stamina to keep speaking in French, but that you lack the skill to keep a conversation moving forward past the initial stages. Once you progress past basic greetings and self-introductions, you are at a loss for how to delve into deeper topics and to manage the flow of conversation, so you revert to English.
As Ericsson recommends, a good teacher would recognize this, and work with you to build your basic conversational skills by practicing things like conversational connectors, fillers, your ability to ask questions, and maybe even your storytelling skills. There are a whole host of easily-learned techniques for improving communication skills, and deliberately practicing any one of them could help you reach your eventual goal of chatting in French for hours on end.
Got all that? Good!
The Comfort Zone Grows As You Do
Okay, so now you know exactly what to do to leave the comfort zone!
We’ve identified the comfort zone, realized why you need to escape it, and the right type of stress you need in your life to do so. Even better, we know the three steps you need to employ in your deliberate practice to finally make for a breakout.
Goodbye forever, right?!?
Well, not exactly.
There’s one more thing I have to tell you before I go:
The comfort zone grows with you.
When you step beyond the comfort zone, it will eventually re-adapt, and you’ll find yourself right back inside it again. This means that to keep improving, you need to make a habit of continually stepping outside your comfort zone, over and over again.
This may seem like a curse. Like you’re Sisyphus, doomed to roll the boulder up the hill and watch it roll back down again, again and again, for all eternity.
But K. Anders Ericsson thinks differently. Where some would see an inescapable comfort zone, Ericsson sees a limitless ceiling on human capability:
“In all my years of research, it is surprisingly rare to get clear evidence in any field that a person has reached some immutable limit on performance. Instead, I’ve found that people more often just give up and stop trying to improve.” (p21)
What does this mean?
That you can always improve. That you can always get better and better and better at your language skills, so long as you don’t give up.
So long as you don’t get comfortable.