Being in the zone―or in the state of flow―is often associated with a special kind of focus. And that focus lends itself to extraordinary performance. You know the feeling. The stars are aligned and you experience a suspended moment of clarity. Everything clicks and it feels like you can do no wrong. Even complex situations are managed with ease as you naturally adjust to all variables in real-time. Every decision, every movement is graceful and appears effortless. While often associated with sports, this happens just as much at work, or in any other activity that requires focus in order to perform well.
It seems like some people are able to get in the zone on demand. It’s like they flip an internal switch and then they’re able to stay in the zone until the task at hand is done. Amazing to watch these people in action. What others find challenging, they make look easy. I used to admire these stars from a distance and wonder how I too could learn to flip that switch.
Locus of Control / Circle of Influence
Before my career even started, I was fortunate to have picked up a copy of the classic 7 Habits by Stephen Covey. Habit 1 gave me insight into how people were able to get in the zone. I started seeing the zone as what Covey called your Circle of Influence. Being in the zone meant having an internal locus of control. In other words, I thought that having a primary focus on the things you can control―and attributing outcomes to those ‘controllables’―had a direct correlation with peak performance. Covey emphasized exercising your ability to choose and being proactive versus reactive. This concept has served me well throughout my career. Even if luck had a large part to do with it, applying this concept has brought me good luck.
Many of us spend our time thinking about things outside of our control. (Things that are in our circle of concern, but outside of our circle of influence.) We may want to change something without having the ability to do anything about it. Whether it’s the weather or the economic/political climate, some things are just not in our circle of control. We might not have any influence over certain things today, but it’s possible to take steps towards someday being able to.
Expanding Your Circle of Influence
To grow our circle of influence, it’s important to practice things just outside of our comfort zone. Not way out, just enough to make us stretch. Things that will help us grow but are still within reasonable reach. With enough exposure and practice in those areas, if they’re meaningful to you, they will eventually become second nature and part of your circle of control. This happens organically to some degree. What separates the ordinary from the extraordinary is intention and proactive behavior.
By maintaining an internal locus of control and working in the zone, you create momentum and waves. I like to consider each phase of my career a wave that I ride as well as I can for as long as it lasts. In the past 25 years, I’ve had 6 or so significant career changes, or waves (metaphorically speaking.) With each role, I got in my zone and made the most of each wave I caught. Sometimes it would get choppy and I would get worked, but I’d keep charging ahead. When it was cranking, I felt the flow and did my thing.
“It feels like the moment you’re in is where you’re supposed to be…”
― Dave Aabo, Waves for Development
Each ride made me better at what I did and as I grew professionally, so did my circle of influence. Those rides were good while they lasted, but every chapter has a beginning and an end, and even big waves have to end sometime.
What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
…is what Marshall Goldsmith titled one of his books. He talked about growing as an executive by evolving rather than following the same formula for success that has gotten you this far. We’re all tempted to rinse and repeat when we find an approach or method that works for us. This never lasts though. Things change–conditions, inputs, reactions, etc. What works today will not necessarily work tomorrow, or next month, or next year. There’s also a tendency for successful people to form bad habits that can defeat and unravel any good that they’ve done. One of those bad habits Goldsmith calls “clinging to the past – the need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past.” In doing so, we’re basically shifting our locus of control from internal to external.
My transition between waves varied. In some cases, I was able to piggy-back off the previous experience. In other situations, I had to start fresh.
There was a point in my management career when I was really in the zone. I stayed focused on the things I could actually control. I took on projects that I knew I could influence, hired the right people and followed the principles that I knew would bring results. Everything fell into place. I was promoted 3 times in 3 years. Stepping stone after stepping stone I climbed, eventually accepting the role of Vice President of Marketing. Then the environment changed – steppings stones became stumbling blocks.
Instead of reassessment, I tried harder to follow the formula that worked for me in the past…it wasn’t working anymore. I kept hitting a brick wall. At first, I kept pounding my head against the wall thinking I could eventually break through. That just caused pain. Then I tried finding a ladder that got me over similar walls I had encountered before. This time, there were no ladders to be found. It took me a while to realize it, but now I see that the wall was there for a different reason. Time to go in a different direction.
Adjusting to Change
New directions and unchartered territory can be scary. Fear of the unknown is natural. As you step out of your comfort zone, you have to deal with the unfamiliar. This is one of those moments where ‘the rubber hits the road’ and how you choose to respond determines how easily you’ll be able to acclimate.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” “Step out of your comfort zone.” Whatever version you’ve heard, I know it’s cliché. Maybe because repetition is actually required for it to become effective and for the message to hit home.
The more we practice stepping out of our comfort zone, the less daunting these changes are. We get used to embracing change rather than fighting it. When this becomes second nature, you can still be “in the zone” even though you’re stepping out of your comfort zone. Because you’ve done it enough times where you accept it as par for the course. You’re no longer paralyzed by that fear.
“To be outstanding, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
As you advance through your career, stay focused on what you’re good at, the things that are important to you and that you’re passionate about. This will help keep you in the zone and boost your performance. Ride those waves for as long as they last and your circle of influence will continue to expand. Opportunities and resources that were once out of reach begin to enter your circle, fueling success in a virtuous cycle. Success begets further success…until it doesn’t.
Relish these moments in the zone. They tend to be fleeting. Athletes can get into a slump. Careers might hit a glass ceiling. When your wave crashes and it’s time to look for your next ride, acknowledge that the rinse and repeat formula may not work anymore. You’ll need to accept change and be comfortable with it.
“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.”
— Josh Waitzkin
Good athletes know this. Successful professionals know this. The difference between just knowing and actually doing is the key to keeping the door open and unlocking the gate to flow. Remember to make time regularly to ‘sharpen the saw’ and do things outside of your comfort zone. Step out and stretch. Do something good that makes you uncomfortable. There will come a time when you’ll need to make a more drastic change in your career and this practice will come in handy. When work or life throws you a curve ball, you’ll be more ready for anything that comes your way if you regularly practice stepping out of your comfort zone. You might swing and miss. That’s ok. That’s how we learn when it’s time to switch it up. Before you know it, you’ll be hitting those curve balls out of the park and making it look effortless.
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