Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 - 21:04

With less five minutes before my presentation, I found myself making my 4th trip to the bathroom stall where I sat down to try and get my breathing and heart rate under control. A team of executives and principle investigators from DuPont flew a private jet up to Boston the annual review of all research performed and funded under the DMA (Dupont-MIT Alliance). I was barely into my second year of research and, despite making significant progress in the sophistication of my experiments, I was terrified that I was going to get bombarded in the Q&A period. These were the experts, and I was still an up-and-comer. How was I going to live up to their expectations?

My story is by no means unique. Public speaking is frequently ranked as one of the top fears for most people. In some cases, the intensity of this fear is greater than the fear of death! Thankfully, I was able to get through this particular presentation relatively unscathed despite being very uncomfortable before, during, and after.

As my career in academia continued, I frequently had opportunities to practice speaking in front of groups of 10 or more people until I became more familiar with the process and more comfortable that it would all be ok. I credit this in large part to being a graduate resident advisor and a coach for a varsity team. Additionally, I had other opportunities to speak at conferences to audiences as large as 200 people. While that may not sound like a lot, for me it was a big stretch goal.

What I've come to learn is that the more your step outside your comfort zone, the larger your comfort zone becomes because the unfamiliar becomes familiar. As a result, fears tend to dissipate and you can then take additional steps to push your comfort zone even further. In many situations, things that used to be terrifying become routine.

I used to loathe writing and, as a result, I was scared to death to put my thoughts out there for the world to see. While I'm by no means perfect or amazing at it, it brings me such joy now that I simply don't let the fear in the way anymore. As a result, I've regained some of my personal power. And this pattern is not limited to public speaking or writing. If I look back on my life, this approach has helped me in my relationships, at work, in my hobbies, and so on.

How have you made the unfamiliar familiar? Where, why, when, and how can you push your comfort zone to make it bigger?

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.