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.