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Just do what you do.

That’s what my friend, Marc, said as he pitched the idea of closing a two-day conference without preparing anything. No slides, laptops, videos, or internet. Just the theme and the titles (but no content) of the other speakers’ sessions. Just get up after the last session and pull it all together.

I couldn’t even wear my favorite suit: only a Hawaiian shirt and sandals.

No hint? No preparation? No technology?

Marc laughed. You do this kind of thing all the time! Show up, listen, and do what comes naturally: Synthesize the conversation. Draw some connections for the audience. You’ll be completely in your comfort zone.

In my comfort zone!?

It seemed like anything but. Years of training stressed: prepare, practice, then present. Gather facts, figures, ideas. Put them into slides, videos, stories, maxims. Then practice it, refine it, deliver it. Was Marc asking me to “get out of the box” and put all that aside?

Actually, no. He was encouraging me to do something harder: To stop trying to be spit-shined and tweet-able. To rely upon what I could do naturally. To create an even higher level of value for others from within my comfort zone.

It was a slap in the face:  forget all the pop-psychology-self-help-lingo. This wasn’t about doing something “outside” of the box, but simpler. Something inside my box!

What are you good at? 

Stop reading and think about it. What do you do extremely well? Not what you can do. What you do. 

Now think about how you feel when you’re doing it. People often say, “You looked like you were having a lot of fun up there!” I never need to be told “go” on stage; usually, I need to be reminded that time is up. I’ve never met a stage I didn’t like; I’m a terrible audience member because I want to have the mic. I often speak regardless of compensation, if the conversation is right.

I do it because I’m good at it. When I’m doing it, I’m in my comfort zone. 

Now consider the intersection of your career and comfort zone. Imagine never again abandoning your “box” of good habits, traits and skills. Creating a career that can wrap the borders of your box around new times, new technologies, new markets, without leaving behind what you love to do, because you do it so well.

Would people pay you to create from your comfort zone? Absolutely. People love to be around – and hire – people who do things well. Some will even go out of their way to help you build that career, for the simple joy of watching you have fun up there. 

Rethinking the take-a-leap advice.

I’m not saying sit still, resist changes, or stagnate. But your comfort zone is the place to start, not the place to abandon. That’s the point: We are comfort-able in our zone. Creating growth from inside the box, not outside, is still momentum. Connecting what we already do well, to the challenges at hand. Increasing the value we can deliver by building upon our strengths, not weaknesses. As I’ve learned, we’re less likely to take big leaps than taking small steps.

After the first day of the conference last year,

I reviewed some notes I’d been taking while listening to other speakers. I thought I could collect enough bullet points to slap together a last-minute outline. I sat there unsatisfied, staring at the notes. Then I realized I was working against my strengths. I was trying to create value from a place of weakness: the poor peaker who had no outline or technology on stage. 

So I moved back into my comfort zone and spent the next day listening to conversations on stage, in the hallways, at the lunch tables. I’d have to trust that my comfort-zone wouldn’t let me down.

When I finally took the stage,

I carried all my little notes on stage and began by “accidentally” dropping them on the floor. I stood there, in short sleeves and rubber shoes, and realized: I’d wanted to be on stage for the last two days! Not in the audience, but leading it. I stopped worrying about being unprepared. I’m always prepared; everywhere is a stage for me. I began to see the threads in my head, and started speaking.

Fifteen minutes later, it was all done. I was shaking: not with fear of failure, but exhilaration. Our comfort zones are the source of our success.Creating new value and trying new things happened from the inside. Even when pushed to its edge.

Since then I’ve been exploring the idea that there’s another way to create value than to get out of our comfort zones. Trying new tools and techniques (or, even abandoning some) works just as well from positions of strengths and safety.

Yes, try new things; push your limits; but consider that the source of your success might be inside your favorite place.

Your comfort zone.