Entrepreneurial learning journey: equal parts flour, eggs, butter, sugar & perspiration

The Great British Bake Off ended last week with a nail-biting final that proved a triumph for Candice Brown. Mel Giedroyc brought the last bake to a halt by announcing: You can do no more ! You’ve finished! However, the climactic Showstopper Challenge failed to feature the one dessert I craved, namely, a custard pie. Being slammed in Paul Hollywood’s face. What a tart.

The GBBO shows all the traits of any great entrepreneurial endeavour – stepping outside of your comfort zone, being tested time and time again, and having to make spontaneous decisions in a challenging environment. Whilst it’s reality television, the situation created in the bake-off tent reveals many parallels to startup life.

There were three challenges: the Signature Challenge was to make a family-sized meringue crown; the Technical Challenge was to make a Victoria Sandwich, which seemed elementary, and the Showstopper Challenge was a picnic hamper consisting of forty-nine items – sausage rolls, quiche, scones, fruit tarts, and a chocolate cake.

The final was close, with all three bakers in contention as they approached the Showstopper. Andrew Smyth was the boyish aerospace engineer from Ireland with ambitious ideas and ambitious shorts; Jane Beedle was the maternal, traditional contestant, a garden designer with two kids and an interesting haystack hairdo, with which I readily identified.

Finally, Candice Brown, famous/notorious for sending more time fixing her appearance than fixing her ingredients, and as Mary Berry put it, ‘liking to do things over the top.’

The bakers had a mammoth five hours to make twelve puff pastry sausage rolls, twelve mini quiches, twelve savoury scones, twelve fruit and custard tarts, and one plain chocolate cake. Mel and Sue shouted Bake! for one last time. Andrew is so nervous he drops his bowl, but it didn’t shatter.

In the Signature Challenge, Jane made three tiers of meringue – a Pavlova with strawberry and raspberry compote, blueberry compote, and white flesh nectarines. Candice went a little further and made two different meringues. The three layers contain Prosecco-soaked strawberries, mango curd, gold-dusted physalis and glittered pistachios. Then there was a fourth tier inspired by the tiny crown of Queen Victoria.

Andrew somehow managed to stick his pecan praline to the wrong side of the baking paper where it became glued solid. His victory in the Technical Challenge meant he was back in the game, but his Signature Challenge did not turn out well thanks to that cursed pecan praline.

Candice’s Queen Victoria Meringue Crown on the other hand was remarkable. Paul bestows upon her the highest accolade: the Hollywood handshake. Candice squeals in the manner of a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert. Andrew is like the only kid at Christmas not to get a cracker.

The edginess around the Victoria Sandwich was palpable. A Victoria is all about having exactly the same amount of the ingredients – I should know, my wife bakes World Class Victorias every week – but the contestants were given no measurements. Equal parts flour, butter, sugar, eggs and tears today.

It’s 259 grams of everything asserted Jane. Quite precise. For the jam, her ratio of sugar to raspberries is 50-50. Andrew has only half the quantity of sugar and is following his grandma’s recipe from memory. Candice’s ratio was 350 grams to 150. Who knew jam could be so controversial?

Candice over-cooks her sponge cake, which the judges frown is too dark on the top. Her jam hasn’t set and is really a jelly not a jam and the buttercream is quite grainy. Fussy. Apart from that it’s fine.

The Showstopper is a picnic fit for her Majesty. To produce such an (absurd) array of different food Andrew has a spreadsheet detailing what he should be doing in every five-minute block of the whole five hours. The amount of multi-tasking going on here is mind-blowing, remarks Andrew. If I didn’t have a plan I’d be flapping.

As time passes, Andrew starts flapping, skipping round frantically in his alarming shorts and boyish cheeks getting redder and redder. But Candice nails it. I loved her little piglets, her sausage rolls filled with black pudding, which have peppercorn eyes and a curly tail made of crackling. Aside from that, her bravery by putting rhubarb into her custard tarts is the ball-in-the-back-of-the-net moment for Mary and Candice’s ambitious bakes.

Candice could bake, but raised the stakes with a combination of her technical skills, her artistic flair and her strawberries soaked in Prosecco. In the second week, she wowed with a cake model of her parents’ north London pub. It was authentic in every detail, right down to the sticky (gingerbread) carpet. Over the three-months of competition, cockney Candice became the Eliza Doolittle of the GBBO tent, cheeky and spirited, determined and passionate, showing undoubted entrepreneurial flair.

This was the winning spectacle of ordinary people surprising themselves by doing extraordinary things, with a dash of eccentricity thrown into the mix. It was a humdinger of a Showstopper. I’m reliving memories of all the TV cooking shows I watched, from Fanny Craddock to the Galloping Gourmet to Delia, Rick Stein and James Martin.

For me, to win GBBO you have to be resilient and brave. There’s something inspirational about seeing the level of contestants’ effort and passion laid bare and vulnerable. Each contestant struggles with the constant presence of the challenge to their ability and confidence, triggering anxiety.

Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to his or her craft is incredible to watch. This is competitive cooking that is hard to imagine, and they produce unbelievable dishes. The effort really gets to me, by committing to their goal, they truly expose themselves. By trying so hard, they leave no room for comfort should they fail.

As always, there are several lessons we can take into our startup business thinking from observing entrepreneurial endeavour in a non-business environment:

Be clear about your vision, the big picture and the end product Contestants visualise the process and their end product. The same applies to business outcomes. We need to use our imagination to create our vision and visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process. The Lean Startup advocates holding the vision but pivoting on the detail, which is a good approach to crafting a forty-nine-piece picnic!

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants have to think through each and every small activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and presentation. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making. Having a clear and agile strategy is also key to a startup founder.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with instructions. In a startup, ambiguity or inaccuracy can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful scaling a business.

Customers have different personalities Mary is kind, wants them to succeed but is firm and professional. Paul is sometimes sarcastic and quick to criticise, but had plenty of heart too. Occasionally lessons come at you in a loud, angry voice, others supportive but still critical. You can focus on the anger or you can hear the lesson.

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes the contestants tried to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally it works, but it’s a risk and the competitor with the simple, well-prepared dish rarely goes home. Experimentation and testing are good startup business principles, but so is the discipline of an MVP.

Have a Plan A and Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result, a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency, unplanned events having adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and to respond with a back-up plan to pivot in an agile way is vital.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out as expected? Yes, you have a Plan B, but Plan B is now under pressure and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay calm and present what is completed with conviction, even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have. The build-measure-learn principles of Lean Startup apply here.

Be goal-oriented and time-aware As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. In each GBBO episode the challenges have clear goals, but a ridiculously short amount of time to complete. The contestants are motivated to win, but it’s remarkable how much pressure the contestants put themselves under to achieve success.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product Contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a big risk to take in business. Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it.

GBBO is a good example of stepping out of your comfort zone as entrepreneurs do everyday. It’s important to push the boundaries. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

The idea goes back to an experiment in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximise performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal but not such that they are destructive.

This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive and our performance drops off sharply. The idea of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to the GBBO competitors and anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. I call this the learning zone.

We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you step up and can deliver amazing results. However, pushing too hard can cause a negative result. I call this the panic zone, where you are unable to think logically with any structure, the box of frogs has opened in your head, your thoughts are jumping everywhere. After this, is the blind panic zone, where you really are uncomfortable, there is no semblance of order, simply a stream of unhelpful random consciousness.

As an entrepreneur, you should operate with optimal anxiety in the learning zone, that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

So ask yourself:

  • Have you identified what the next level of startup success looks like?
  • How often do you review how you’re performing, examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • When is the next opportunity to learn some new skills?
  • When do you envisage you’ll next get out of your comfort zone to embrace a challenge?
  • Why not create a crisis in your startup to create a learning moment?
  • Are you curious, constantly looking to learn about your customers?

Startup life does occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil and seasoning, and then hey, the world is our omelette.

Whether you love or loathe GBBO, the tension and the temperamental chaffing of the competitors, there are great personal and business lessons to be gleaned from cooking under pressure in terms of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone.

Stepping out and becoming comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown, pushing and stretching yourself provides new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. I’ll push myself time and again to learn and experience new things. Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be.

MasterChef: lessons about comfort zones & marginal gains

It’s the final week of MasterChef 2015. Over the past six weeks, from the 40 hopefuls taking part in the heats, just five talented amateur cooks have fought their way through to the last week of competition in a bid to win the trophy and become the champion.

The five travel to Cambridge University’s Churchill College, where they have the task of cooking a five-course dinner in honour of Sir Winston Churchill. The dinner will be overseen by legendary chef Michael Caines, who has held two Michelin stars for over 15 years. Caines has devised a five-course menu for the dinner and the amateurs will be challenged to replicate his exquisite food for the occasion.

Can the MasterChef final five blow the guests away with some amazing food? It’s high drama as they push themselves to the limit to impress judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace to keep alive their dream of winning MasterChef 2015.

We’ve seen numbers dwindle as the strongest cooks conquered fierce challenges. The chefs-in-training have experienced exciting highs and devastating lows as their show-stopping dishes and original creations met praise and scrutiny from celebrities, food critics and winners from the past.

From ‘choice’ and ‘palate’ tests to a ‘calling card dish’ and the ‘reinvention test’, the strictly timed challenges have pushed the cooks to the limits of their abilities. All of these heats have been building up to the big final, where just one chef will overcome the competition to be crowned champion.

There’s no telling who can cook themselves to victory. For me, to win the competition you have to be resilient and brave, I don’t think the cooks who are best at the start win, it’s the ones who learn the quickest and improve. It’s all about learning from and absorbing the experience.

I’ve watched Masterchef right through this series, there’s something inspirational about seeing the level of contestants’ effort and passion laid bare and vulnerable.  Each contestant struggles with the constant presence of the challenge to their ability and their confidence, triggering anxiety. Hands shake uncontrollably as they struggle to place the final drizzle of gravy on the plate.

Last week’s highlights included Gregg saying Two tarts and an ice-cream as if it were the title of a new release by One Direction. An overriding memory came from the celebrity series a few years back with Janet Street Porter banging on about her love of cooking roadkill. That and India Fisher’s hushed narrative and voice over giving me goose pimples…for the soft ‘g’ in the pronunciation of tagliatelle.

From 8am till midnight, day in and day out, they’re ordered about by egotistical chefs in Michelin-starred kitchens while cooking complicated dishes against the clock and all this while being constantly nagged by the judges bellowing YOU ONLY HAVE FIVE MINUTES LEFT.

I’ve long been a passionate cook and constantly developing my culinary craftsmanship. As far as I’m concerned, food is about taste, texture and simplicity, cooking is not an opportunity to make a climbing frame out of vegetables or building blocks out of meat. My food is chunky and unpretentious, a bit like me!

I’m an avid reader of cookbooks for inspiration. Giorgio Locatelli’s big Italian book is a great read, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s veg book has a load of good ideas and Rosemary Shrager’s recipes are simple and fool proof, so ideal for me. Heston Blumenthal is just too posh and too fussy for me. I spend more time trying to use the letters of his name as an anagram and spell something rude. That lush nobleman is my best effort.

I love basic and traditional English food. My ‘signature dish’ is a Desperate Dan pie – braised steak with morel mushrooms and pink shallots, in rich chestnut-flavoured gravy, with a puff pastry topping, served with sprouts pan-fried with chestnuts and garlic, and carrots braised in Manuka honey. Gregg and John would love my dish, although I suspect there would be some whingeing about my presentation as I’m all about substance over style.

But back to Masterchef. Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to his or her craft is incredible to watch. This is competitive cooking that is hard to imagine, and they produce unbelievable dishes. The effort really gets to me, by committing to their goal, they truly expose themselves.  By trying so hard, they leave no room for comfort should they fail.

How many of us commit ourselves to our business like this?  Very few I suspect. Most of us settle for a bit of effort but we seek to avoid at all costs any loss of dignity, the risk of appearing foolish, or being criticised.  We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. They step out of their comfort zones in the glare of national television and bare their soul. And sometimes their sole.

As always when looking at something like this, I always try to find lessons we can take into our business:

Bosses come in all shapes and sizes and have different personalities Greg Wallace is kind, wants them to succeed but is firm and professional. John Torode is sarcastic and likes to watch people sweat, quick to anger, but has plenty of heart too. Occasionally, lessons come at you in a loud, angry voice, others supportive but still critical. You can focus on the anger or you can hear the lesson.

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes the contestants try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally, it works, but it’s a risk and the competitor with the simple, well-prepared dish rarely goes home. Attention to detail and back to basics are good business principles.

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants are told the goal of the day and then have to think through each and every small activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and how would they present. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven. Having a clear strategy is key.

Have a Plan A and Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency. Businesses operate in a dynamic environment and unplanned events of significant adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and be able to respond with a back-up plan is vital.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? Yes, you have a Plan B, but often Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay clam and present what is completed with conviction even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have.

Be goal-oriented and time-aware As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. In each episode there is a challenge, with a clear goal, but a ridiculously short amount of time to complete it. The contestants are motivated to win, but it’s remarkable how much pressure the contestants put themselves under to achieve success.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with clear instructions. In business, ambiguity or inaccuracy in a process can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful outcomes in business. The pressure of Masterchef is a perfect example of how to get things done when the heat is on.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Contestants are shown the dish they are required to prepare, and they visualise the process and the end product.  The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve.  We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product During the presentation of each dish the contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s a big risk to take in business.  Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it with some of your colleagues and selected clients to see if it can be improved.

Masterchef is a good example of getting out of your comfort zone. It’s important to push the boundaries, and when you do, it often feels like a big deal. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with the familiar routines? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to an experiment in psychology in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply.

The idea of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to the Masterchef competitors and anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state.

Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It’s a natural state that most people trend towards. But don’t demonise your comfort zone as something holding you back, we all need that headspace, but Optimal Anxiety is that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

Whether you love or loathe the programme, the tension and the occasional temperamental chaffing of the competitors, there are great personal and business lessons to be gleaned from cooking under pressure in terms of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, as shown by the amateur chefs. For example:

  • Be open to learning
  • Remove the boundaries and barriers
  • Curiosity
  • Do it in small steps
  • Focus on the positive past to envision a positive future
  • Accept that it will be uncomfortable

Breakout and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown, push and stretch yourself and you’ll configure new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. I don’t want to be a ballroom dancer, but I’ll push myself time and again to learn and experience new things. Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be.

A second thought for me from the kitchen recalls the thinking of Dave Brailsford, once Performance Director of British Cycling and latterly head of Team Sky, who was instrumental in leading a period of unrivalled success for competitive team and individual cycling in Great Britain. His performance philosophy was based upon ‘marginal gains’ – the idea that if you break down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

As well as looking at traditional components of success such as physical fitness and tactics, Brailsford’s approach focused on a holistic strategy, embracing technological developments and athlete psychology. He is noted for his emphasis on constant measuring and monitoring of key statistics and developing training interventions, which target any observed weaknesses, however minor.

Brailsford is a keen student of management technique and attributed some of success to Moneyball, a book written by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in US Major League Baseball. Beane recognised that the way baseball players were assessed was flawed, based on traditional, outdated indicators.

Beane’s focus was analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, which informed Brailsford’s own analytical approach to individual performance. What we do at the Velodrome is all about winning or losing. We just spend our time thinking about how to go faster. If a rider isn’t going well, how do we sort it out? That is what occupies our lives.

Brailsford took Beane’s viewpoint and revolutionised an analytical performance system based on a series of hypotheses to determine the trajectory of a professional cyclist’s potential and ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ – It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in every single thing you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain – potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It’s not just a soundbite but rather an approach that has underpinned Brailsford’s phenomenal success in both track and road cycling. The philosophy of marginal gains is simple: To be the very best they can be so that they perform when it matters.

So, what can you distil from competitive cooking, the concept of the comfort zone and the philosophy of marginal gains into application for a business context to take your performance to the next level?

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like for yourself?
  • How often do you review how you’re performing, examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • When is the next opportunity to learn some new skills?
  • When do you envisage you’ll next get out of your comfort zone to embrace a challenge?
  • Have you identified what the marginal gains are for the way you perform?

As Greg says: Cooking doesn’t get any harder than this. Business life does occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil, salt and pepper, and the world is your omelette. Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

Strictly Dancing – lessons from being outside of your comfort zone

Fifteen celebrities. 132 dances. Three finalists. Only one winner.  Abbey Clancy won Strictly Come Dancing 2013 on Saturday, lifting the glitterball trophy. Her winning dance was a quickstep to Katrina and the Waves’ Walking On Sunshine, scoring 38 points. She was a complete amateur going into the contest, but was the first contestant to score a perfect 40, for a salsa performed during the tenth week of the show’s run.

The final was determined entirely by public votes and more than six million votes were cast. Clancy lifted the trophy to the strains of Abba’s Dancing Queen as everyone clapped along like drunken aunties at a disco. Tickertape falls. Applause rings out. Credits roll. The End.

Ben Cohen left the contest in week nine,  a couple of weeks ago. Dubbed the ‘David Beckham of rugby’, Cohen is the 10th-highest point scorer in England rugby history and third in the list of all-time England try scorers. Part of the England Ruby World Cup winning-team in 2003, the former winger handled the leap from Scrum to Samba pretty well.

He said playing in a World Cup final was easier than taking part in the contest: I’m used to running out with 14 other guys and there’s safety in numbers. The beast of the dance floor, Ben became famous for his muscular physique and often shirtless routines on the show.

Cohen was given the boot following the sequined stunner at Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom, in a show full of classics from the Rumba and Foxtrot to the Viennese Waltz and the Tango. But as usual, one contestant had to leave and Ben lost to Mark Benton in a head-to-head dance-off.

The elimination of Cohen was poignant as he was totally outside his comfort zone, but all the more startling for happening, I recall, after a Foxtrot. Time and again in the competition the former winger had impressed me in the traditional ballroom disciplines, but struggled to impose himself in the more free-form Latin-based dances.

When I say impressed me, I mean I’d look more like a whirligig washing line dressed like a bouncer on the dance floor and pity my wife, held to ransom as my dance partner in an expensive alluring frock, being flung around with the aplomb of a rioter releasing a Molotov cocktail.

If Cohen was going to go, surely it would have been the week before after the Samba round, when the judges’ scores plunged him right down. Heinous was one of the verdicts – which my dictionary defines as shockingly evil or wicked which is possibly a bit strong for looking clunky doing some shoulder wiggles and failing to pull off a set of hip thrusts.

Perhaps he didn’t quite boss the dance area as he used to boss the gap between opponent and white line hurtling down the wing in his pomp, but he stood up tall to the challenge when he had to. True, judges accused him of having a cumbersome bodyline and encouraged him to pull out right through the centre, which can be tricky for a big bloke, believe me, especially when wearing ridiculously tight pants.

The point for me is that even after the harsh judges’ critique, and the ridicule Cohen potentially opened himself up to by entering in the first place, he set himself targets and had a go at something new. He threw himself into a new challenge with passion, energy, two massive feet and chunky shoulders.

He was obviously well outside of his comfort zone but I admired his determination, he had the drive of wanting to change things by his own efforts, a fierce competitive streak, and a will to win. These are key attributes we all need, remember, failure only establishes that our determination to succeed was not strong enough. All things are possible for those who believe.

And at the end, whoever thought Cohen would come off worse in a 50-50 challenge with Mark Benton? Still, let’s not get too morose about Big Ben, with stout thighs, a boyish smile that fills his face and ruddy complexion necessary for seasonal work as a departmental store Santa, he has enough about him to escape being a pro-celebrity dance victim.

But for me, I’ll never be able to Salsa, Cha-Cha-Cha or Tango.  I have two left feet and can’t dance for toffee.  I’m good at arm wrestling though. But maybe my negative mindset is just holding me back? Most people hold themselves back in some way with self-imposed mental limits, who knows where they come from, but they are very real and they can completely inhibit what people are capable of. Maybe part of the enduring popularity of Strictly is that it is possible to overcome seemingly impossible challenges, and that there is hope for all of us.

Getting out of your comfort zone takes so much work. There’s actually a lot of science that explains why it’s so hard to break out, and why it’s good for you when you do it. With a little understanding and some adjustments, you can break away from your routine and do great things. Jesse Owens once said: We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.

It’s important to push the boundaries, and when you do, it often feels like a big deal. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with the familiar routines? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to a classic experiment in psychology in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply.

The idea of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state.

Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It’s a natural state that most people trend towards. But don’t demonise your comfort zone as something holding you back, we all need that head space, but Optimal Anxiety is that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

Whether you love or loathe the sequins, the tight trousers and the self-importance attitude of the judges, there are great personal and business lessons to be gleaned from a twirl on the dance floor in terms of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, as shown by Ben Cohen. For example:

Be open to learning To be successful in business it is vital to keep expanding your knowledge and learn new skills. When you learn and take action on what you’ve learned, you will grow.

Ben aimed to achieve the best performance each time, whilst remembering to make all right moves. He was probably terrified before taking the stage, but what did he do? As in his rugby career, he stepped up, faced the fear, and put into practice his learning, and danced to his heart’s content! The Strictly contestants developed over the weeks and you can see those who were open to learning from their professional dance mentors to become better performers.

Remove the boundaries and barriers Even though the Strictly contestants are celebrities, learning to dance takes them far beyond their comfort zone. In business when you stay safe what happens? Nothing. Business throws up a whole host of opportunities for new experiences, and like the contestants who will have to learn new steps and styles, you will have high and low times.

Breaking out of your safety zone, doing something new and removing the boundaries and barriers will make your business become one of the best experiences of your life.

Curiosity When you get stuck in your comfort zone you are closed to new thinking. Curiosity on the other hand, fills you with anticipation, it opens you up to consider something new and creates enthusiasm – the emotions you experience are often a result of what you focus your mind on.

How do you become more curious? Curiosity is a habit. The more curious you are the more curious you become, and over time it becomes more of a natural part of you to develop an appetite to explore new things. Curiosity removes inertia.

Do it in small steps What holds us back is often a belief that facing something head on will be overwhelming. However, doing stuff in incremental steps allows you to stretch your comfort zone, and slowly makes it less uncomfortable and frightening so you can expand your comfort zone a little more each time.

We all improve by taking small steps, building on new skills to make it the new ‘normal’. In seeking this steady, focused and gradual improvement you can make it a habit to get out of your comfort zone every day. Every day make an effort in an area where you need to grow. There are no victories without battles. There is no growth without challenge – what’s the alternative, a slow fall into mediocrity?

Focus on the positive past to envision a positive future Think back to the previous times when you have broken away and done something new, and focus on the positive memories of when you took a chance and what you achieved. Shackleton is quoted as saying: One of the things that made me persist in the Antarctic in the face of sickening discouragements was my determination to name a portion of the earth’s surface after my father. What does success look like?

Frequently, we automatically play back negative experiences in our minds before we are about to do something, creating a fear of failure rather than an expectation of success. We blank out the positive memories and our previous positive achievements. Avoid that trap – if you don’t think you can win the race, why bother entering?

See yourself holding the prize, have self-belief that you will achieve the goals you have set yourself. From the start of the Strictly contest you can quickly see two or three who want it and have the determination to make it happen. Displayed in each step they take, every turn made, and by the expression on their face, they stand out because they believe they can win the prize. Do you see yourself holding the prize for your business?

Accept that it will be uncomfortable Even if you do the things above it can still be uncomfortable to step out of your comfort zone. But simply accept it, the discomfort will be temporary. If you accept that the discomfort is just part of the journey then it tends to become not so significant. If on the other hand you focus on how hard it is, think about it a lot and create all sorts of drama and excuses around it, then you feed the discomfort and it becomes so uncomfortable that you can become paralysed from taking action.

As Ben Cohen showed, success begins at the end of your comfort zone. Breakout and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown, push and stretch yourself and you’ll configure new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. I don’t want to be a ballroom dancer, but I’ll push myself time and again to learn and experience new things. Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be.