Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Comfort Zone, Hump Day Hmm

Today's Hump Day Hmm asks us to "Tell us about your comfort zone, outside your comfort zone, and share a journey you took outside your comfort zone...what happened?" Like most people, I think my comfort zone is evolving over time, but I know I am most comfortable when I feel like I understand what I am supposed to do, and I am least comfortable when I feel completely ignorant, unwieldy, or incapable of a task placed before me. I am not an easy person to embarass, but when someone asks me in a public way if I have done something that I did not know I was supposed to have done, or which I have not yet done but did know was my job, that makes me extremely uncomfortable.

I remember one classic example of how someone dealt with this dilemma from my undergraduate days. The professor asked a senior, close to graduation, a question regarding the class subject matter, and he said, "Oh, professor, I am truly sorry, but while I was on Spring Break last week, I developed C.R.S. syndrome." She asked him in complete serious if he was okay and whether or not he needed to be at home resting instead of in class. Feeling a little bad for pulling her leg (and not realizing she did not know the term, apparently), he told her what C.R.S. stood for, and she thought it was so funny that she didn't feel the need to reprimand him. (For those who don't know, like I did not, I don't swear on this blog and really not at all as a general rule, but it stands for "Can't remember s---"). There are days when I feel myself wanting to use that line when I get asked about something I don't know.

Unlike most men, I am not afraid to stop and ask for directions when I am lost. If I am unfamiliar with an area, or if I need to get somewhere I've never been, then I am perfectly fine with calling the place I am trying to find or stopping and asking someone in the vicinity of it for help. What I hate doing, though, is calling someone to ask for help with something they know that I think they will expect me to know. I hated asking my first English professor on a college campus a question about format for a paper that was do, probably because so many of my earlier teachers had made it clear what ogres such professors could be. Yet by asking my question, the professor was perfectly happy to make a wonderful suggestion that might have been obvious to him, but it was an eye opener for me. I said, "I guess I'm still a little bit Frosh" meaning I was still new to the ways of college. He said, "What did you say?" I repeated, "I guess I'm still a little bit Frosh. This is my first term here." to which he said, "I thought for sure you were Junior before you said that. I'm really impressed with how well you handle yourself in my class." I was proud to hear his remarks, and I felt much better the rest of the term with just asking him anything that I felt I did not understand. I got an A in the class, but I felt most of all that I really came into my own as an academic writer thanks to that professor, since the writing I did there was so completely foreign to what I had done even in my joint enrollment English courses in high school up to that point.

Right now, I definitely feel like I am stepping outside my comfort zone. I have spent more than a week writing professors and talking to them by phone in the hopes of better understanding their areas of study. I hate asking because some of them taught me these subjects and I can just sense them wanting to ask, "Well why don't you already know about this subject?" I think my own insecurities have a lot more to do with those concerns than their actual attitudes, though. After all, the reason I came to respect the ones who taught me is that they were so wonderful about having an open door to ask anything we wanted to know. Still, it feels really strange to ask these questions and then let them know I am considering joining their ranks some day. I liken it to a college football player asking a pro player what it means to play one position over another, which the pro player would almost certainly want to say "If you don't know that by now, then you don't belong at this level." So if I want to go "pro" in business as an academic, it feels awkward to say "Tell me what it is you research, because I have no idea what I would ever want to research, let alone research for the rest of my life."

One step outside my comfort zone Tuesday, though, yielded tremendous results. At my wife's encouragement ( have to give her credit for suggesting it be a call instead of an email) I talked to an instructional consultant from one of the universities I was examining. I made the call without giving him any warning because I did not want to be told "sorry, too busy right now" or anything of the sort. I first told him how amazed that such a position as his existed in a business school, because I had never heard of it. He explained that his school was, to his knowledge, the only one in the US with such a position on staff, but that he loved his job. I wanted to know if he was a resource available to Ph.D. students who wanted to become better teachers. He assured me that he was available, and that he often worked with them. His job is to help professors in that college of business (and really only that college with a few exceptions) who want to improve their technique or simply try out something new. I am so glad I called him because by the end of the conversation, I felt much more sure of myself and the possibility that I might belong among the ranks of academia. He even framed what I think might some day prove to be the beginnings of my dissertation. Most of all, he let me know how much he appreciated hearing of my interest and how much he hoped I would follow through on it. I will try to write about that conversation in greater detail in days to come, but for now I am simply glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and called. Going forward, I hope to have similarly enriching conversations and email exchanges in the future that come from stepping out of my comfort zone.

-- Robert


Melissa said...

Good job!

Glad to see you are following up on all of this. :)

Now if I can only do the same....

Robert said...

Step by step. The conversation was great, though, even though it was very brief. I have had encouraging emails from all my professors I wrote to as well.

Suki said...

What a wonderful post :)

It's that stage in my life where I ease myself into the big world.. and "comfort zone" is only in the safety of my head and alone in my room. Sometimes even blogging means stepping out of it, and physically talking to people - even those I like respect from afar - is a daunting affair(not something i'd let them guess in a hurry).
It's good to hear that these small steps out of the box paid off for you. Gives me hope :)

le35 said...

I really would like to see you achieve your dreams, Rob. The more you go find what you can get out of life instead of just waiting until life comes to you (getting out of your comfort zone) the more dreams you can fulfill.

Robert said...

One small step for Rob, one giant leap for Rob's family, right, Ellie?

Suki, I can completely understand what you mean. Talking to people can be very tough for me when I'm not in the mode of wanting to. When I just decide to "get my hands dirty" then it's quite enjoyable to socialize, but if I'm not in a chatty mood then sometimes I find myself wanting to move on from every interaction quickly. Most of the time, though, I am quite happy talking to people, but not so happy asking "stupid questions" (questions that make me feel like I look stupid).

Anonymous said...

Oh god, I hate cold calling of any kind for any reason. Great that you got such a positive response.

Gwen said...

Cold calling is way way WAY outside my comfort zone, so good for you! It's encouraging to hear positive results for the hard tasks.

Julie Pippert said...

I am frequently so amazed at how willing people are to answer questions about their area of expertise that I just as frequently wonder why I expect them to be annoyed to be asked and feel as if I should already know. I do this even while I tell my daughters that we are all learning people and need to ask.

In truth, I know I have been conditioned to this---I spent a lot of years being shamed when I asked questions.

But I wonder what others think, and why they think as they do.

Great post!

And good for you getting out there and checking into all of this!!!

(Plus wise words from Ellie.)

Anonymous said...

One of the hardest things for me to understand when I started grad school was that I did not need to pretend I already knew everything I was supposed to be learning. "Everyone has huge holes," a professor told me. "They just hide it well."

Robert said...

I used to say I have sold the three hardest things in the world: politics, religion, and stock information. I have made cold calls for campaigns, fundraisers, and a brokerage firm I worked for, so I've had plenty of experience being cussed out, hung up on, yelled at, and belittled. I still am not fond of it, but I am not terrified of it like I was the first time I was handed a list of 100 people and told to call them. Thanks for all the positive comments, though.

I agree, Julie, that people generally enjoy sharing their knowledge in the area of their expertise. That's probably why they got into the field. Librarians seem to be a classic exception, at least the ones I had in high school (my Mom was one, so I can say this - she was a great one, though). They were so hateful to students over anything - even being asked to help find a book - that my best friend and I used to imagine the job listing read something like "Angry people wanted. Must hate children, sound of any kind, and all forms of learning that require speech. Bitterness a plus. Happy people need not apply." I really wondered why our three librarians were so mean all the time, because it wasn't like the obnoxious kids ever came near them. They were mean to geeks.

Sorry, completely unrelated tangent there.