Disrupt Yourself: The Dangers of the Comfort Zone

Madelaine Davis| July 16, 2020

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Everyone loves a bit of comfort. The cozy feeling we get when we know we are safe, secure, and everything is okay. But what happens when we get too comfortable? What happens when comfort invades every facet of our lives and businesses? What if, instead of going out and living a BOLD life characterized by growth, we get stuck in what we here at Keller Williams call “the Comfort Zone”?

Whether we know it or not, many of us live in a Comfort Zone. We’ve mistakenly labeled the status quo as a “win,” and stopped pushing ourselves to find something more. What we often fail to realize is that change happens with or without our input. And the longer we stray from discomfort, the more likely we are to stray from where we want to be. If you want to live a BOLD life, you’ve got to get comfortable with discomfort.

Netflix and Killed

It’s hard to imagine now, but for decades, if you wanted to watch movies in the comfort of your home, you had to go to a Blockbuster store. They commanded their landscape and faced few competitors. However, Blockbuster’s success created a complacency problem. They had gone unchallenged for so long that they’d become comfortable with only doing business as usual.

Enter Netflix: a startup whose business model centered on ordering movies online. For a nominal fee, you could rent a certain number of films per month that Netflix would send straight to your door – with no late fees. The model was a breath of fresh air in the industry. Netflix grew, found their niche, and were profiting, expanding, and comfortable.

As those familiar with the phrase “getting Netflixed” will recall, Blockbuster wasn’t particularly concerned. Blockbuster had the brand, the service, the money, and the power to do whatever they wanted. They didn’t feel pressured to grow into the online rental market and actually passed on an opportunity to acquire Netflix.

Netflix paid no mind. Instead, by 2007, they had doubled down on their vision. Even though they were successful, they invested heavily in a new business model centered on streaming content digitally. The pivot meant they dove right back into discomfort.

At the time, the move seemed unnecessary. Digital entertainment wasn’t common yet. No one had enough internet bandwidth to stream movies. Why, in the midst of their success, would Netflix pivot to something completely different?

Netflix knew what many of us don’t: if they didn’t pursue growth, they’d eventually fail.

The Problem with Comfort

Comfort can be a wonderful experience. We can find comfort anywhere – in a place, an experience, or with one another. It makes us feel safe. It can be good.

But it doesn’t last forever.

Unchallenged comfort isn’t comfort – it’s decline. What feels like standing still is actually the beginning of falling backward, as you can see in the following model. Like Blockbuster found, if we coast on past success, we’ll eventually confront someone else’s future. Netflix continued to plot their growth; Blockbuster didn’t. They stayed within their realm of comfort, and it bankrupted them.

What causes many of us to slip up is that we mistake comfort for success. We view comfort as a reward. And, by basking in our achievement, we fail to realize that if we stay comfortable too long, we’ll eventually enter into a state of discomfort when the world changes around us.

Think of the Comfort Zone like an investment. Let’s say you purchase a home, put in hard work, and eventually gain $200,000 in equity. If you were to pull that money out of your home and stash that sweet pile of cash under your mattress, what would happen to your money? It would decline in value. If you left it there for a few decades, you’d still have $200,000, but because of inflation, it would be worth much less. 

It isn’t enough to do nothing. We can grow to keep pace or we can grow to stay ahead. Either way, the truth is: if we aren’t growing, we’re declining. 

Choosing Discomfort

At the end of every achievement, we encounter another Comfort Zone. Much like a muscle, if we lift the same weight for the same number of reps every day, we’ll eventually plateau. Each plateau presents its own challenges, but the solution is always the same. In order to keep or grow our investment, we have to find discomfort again.

Discomfort signals that we are outside our established area of expertise or skillset. It signifies a need for improvement – growth. If we fail to address that discomfort, then we slip into decay. The secret to the success of companies like Netflix is that they are always in the midst of discomfort. Even after conquering a giant like Blockbuster, they push ahead and take on new targets – like Hollywood. In the process, they keep control of their future.

Whether we make the choice to embrace discomfort or wait for the world to choose for us, the outcome is the same: we aren’t going to be comfortable forever. We’ll either find ourselves in a worse position than where we started, or we’ll ascend through discomfort into growth. The moment you stop pursuing discomfort, you lose the ability to control your life. But if you decide to grow, to live a BOLD life, you gain the ability to author your own change.

And that’s powerful.

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