Finding your voice outside of the comfort zone.

Everyone likes to think they are the next Adele or Sinatra when they step into the shower, and yet the mere thought of singing as part of a group has many people running for the hills. Although initially daunting, stepping out of ones comfort zone can be elating, and in our experience, a joy to behold. Overcoming anxieties and stepping out of comfort zones is applicable across the world of business, and is seen by many business leaders as a critical career success move. We set out to further explore the idea of the comfort zone, to better understand its role, its limitations, and the opportunities it presents.

For many people, singing with a choir for the first time is a bit like being born, because as the oft-quoted saying goes, ‘life begins at the end of your comfort zone.’ This might well be because a surprisingly large majority of people have been told at some stage in their lives that they can’t sing, and the idea of opening ones mouth in trying to conjure some semblance of lyric, rhythm and melody can initially feel incredibly exposing. It is our assertion that everyone can sing, and yet persuading people not to stand in the corner or hide behind their phone is often the first challenge our conductors face!

Corley Syndrome, the scientific name for the comfort zone, implies a mental state that has boundaries. Alistair White, the psychologist who coined the term ‘comfort zone’, states that in order to achieve high performance, one has to experience a certain amount of stress, because challenging ourselves generally means we rise to the occasion. However, taken to extremes, stress releases an excess of harmful cortisol (the stress hormone) whilst increasing blood pressure. All this can have a paralysing effect that is incredibly inhibitive, with productivity and creativity dropping off sharply. We therefore need to find the sweet spot, what is known as ‘optimal anxiety’, reflected in the findings of a famous experiment on mice by by Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson in 1908. The subsequent "Yerkes-Dodson Law" refers to a curve, the peak of which indicates the position of optimum productivity.

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It is fair to say that for many people, a comfort zone presents stability, and the level of risk people are willing to undertake is often likely to be somewhat measured, relative to ones personal situation. Clearly, continual reckless risk taking doesn’t generally pay dividends, and evolution tends to see us automatically reverting to a mostly risk-neutral state, being as we are (sensibly) hard wired to err on the Darwinian side of self-protection.

However, leaving the comfort zone doesn’t have to involve giving up your job or jumping out of a plane, and there is plenty of literature around how even small changes can be beneficial, breaking us out of entrenched ways. Having said that, overcoming anxieties, facing fears and breaking established patterns can mean very different things to different people. Personally, I find tricky challenges can provoke anxiety because I know that my bitter disappointment for not actually taking on a challenge can be somewhat worse than the anxiety associated with the activity itself! This I have experienced throughout my life, particularly when it comes to performing solo or making big presentations.

At on:song, we recognise that taking risks of any size really can feel empowering, no matter what the outcome, providing experiences from which you grow, improve your career prospects, and inspire those around you. Joining a choir presents opportunity for personal reward, without exposing oneself to any risk - apart from the self-inflicted fear of appearing foolish in front of ones peers! Our conductors help people to overcome fear of ridicule by firmly establishing a culture of support and trust, reminding people that everybody in the room is in the same boat. We like to heavily promote the ‘strong and wrong’ principle: the importance of commitment over always being right.

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In planning this article, I immediately remembered a page entitled ‘what I have learnt’, the final entry from a wild weeks solo hiking across the Umbrian mountains from Perugia to Rome. My major takeaways from the adventure were to always be confident in my decision making, and to trust my judgement, learnt as a result of having put myself in a position of being woefully under prepared, under equipped and squarely outside of my comfort zone! But as I experienced in that scenario, when one overcome something, the sense of satisfaction and achievement promotes a rush of endorphins and makes us feel great. For unconfident singers, the benefit is two-fold, because when we sing we automatically release those same endorphins; oxytocin and serotonin. Stepping out of our comfort zones also activates neural pathways and connections that would otherwise stay dormant, allowing us access to a huge store of untapped knowledge, resources and capacities, not to mention confidence.

Stepping outside of our comfort zone often means breaking from established thought patterns, giving a new focus of attention and allowing us to discover passions, talents and aspects of ourselves that we were not hitherto aware of. Similarly, in the mindful act of singing we unknowingly open ourselves up to a flood of emotions, memories, and associations that lead to new insights, allowing us to empathize in ways we have not previously explored. In our experience running choirs for workplaces, we have had numerous singers report back how this combined effect helps them to approach business challenges from new perspectives. We also see how increased self-confidence can bring increased courage to speak up in big meetings and conferences, and to approach presentations in a more relaxed and self assured manner. We are always capable of so much more!

It is also worth remembering that the comfort zone is not a fixed entity, but flexible and adjustable according to the changing circumstance of the individual. As you increasingly challenge yourself, so your comfort zone expands, something that as a lifelong practitioner of extreme sports I am keenly aware of. Conversely, ones comfort zone decreases as we get older, and whilst I’m not suggesting that all people of advancing years should stay sharp by taking up wakeboarding or parkour, we should continually to try and push ourselves mentally and physically in whatever relative capacity, to try new things and expand our horizons. It just so happens that singing presents a fantastic opportunity to do just that, whatever your age!

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George Bell