Finding Our Learning Zone

I have to admit that I don’t usually worry about being comfortable.  Life has been pretty good to us.  Any problems we have are largely “first world problems” that the greatest majority of the world would happily take on along with the life we have been blessed with.  My wife Kendra is really good at reminding me that we need to be grateful and even more act on that gratitude because of this.

Recently I’ve been working with a coach who introduced me to a different view on comfort.  Bill Harrison of Level Up Management Consulting has an interesting model that provides some really good insight into how comfort acts on us in life.  Bill has developed a simple model that shows how we work out from our comfort zone in order to learn.  The model also suggests that there are limits to how far outside our comfort zone we can go, and when we reach the limits we hit the panic zone, which may send us back to the comfort of the comfort zone! In between these two is the learning zone, where we are able to grow as human beings.

Bill raised this model with me because he sensed in our conversations that there were aspects of my life where my learning zone seemed quite narrow, or in other words, I was quite obviously in my comfort zone and also quite obviously not in my learning zone.  We started to explore what might be going on for me in that respect.  That was at the end of one session with Bill and I put some thought into what might be happening for me during the two weeks between our sessions.  What I found was quite interesting for me.

I first started looking at the model from the perspective of why my comfort zone had grown so large so as to overtake my learning zone.  When I really looked at it I could see that wasn’t really how I show up in the world.  I love to learn and always have, but in these particular life circumstances I seemed to venture out into the learning zone and then retreat reasonably quickly.

So I came to the conclusion that what was happening was that my panic zone was getting bigger when I dealt with certain things like moving into my ‘first retirement’, relocating to another part of Canada, etc. So my first discovery was that the learning zone can get smaller either because we are too comfortable and don’t want to venture out, or because we venture out and encounter our fears/uncertainties very quickly.

Constrained Learning
Constrained Learning

As I got together with Bill we started to talk about why this might be.  What stood out in our discussions for Bill was that I have highly developed critical thinking skills, and when I’m out of my comfort zone they are my “go to” tool set.  I want to take in all the data I can find and use it to converge on a solution.  When I’ve converged then I can retreat back into my comfort zone feeling good that I have a solution.

When we identified this we next explored if that was always true for me and discovered that it is not.  There are many parts of my life such as work, writing, travel, artistic endeavors, etc. where I love being in the learning zone and even push past the boundaries of the panic zone.  So it came down to where there was a sense that my basic need for security and certainty in certain aspects of life (see both Abraham Marlow’s and Anthony Robbins’ hierarchies of needs), my panic zone grows and shrinks my learning zone.  My comfort zone doesn’t actually change.

This really got me thinking about the applications for these concepts as a leader. How do we assess whether our team members are spending time in the learning zone? Do we watch for resistance to change? Are we looking to see how many questions are being asked that reach to the edges (and beyond) their current job responsibilities? Are we alert for convergent thinking, where problems are solved using known solutions?

How would we use this model to help build development plans for our team?

What would we do where we sense a team member’s comfort zone is too big?  Would we start to have conversations about adding more challenge to the existing role? Would we look to move them to a new role with new challenges? What other strategies could we use to move this person back onto a growth track and thus into the learning zone?

More on this topic next week!



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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

9 thoughts on “Finding Our Learning Zone

  1. Fascinating topic Ian.

    I love how you recognize where you behave differently depending upon the circumstances.

    I think that in work related situations, fear of instability, of jeopardizing the certainty of our financial well-being holds us in the comfort zone — the challenge is, I think being there also undermines our willingness to challenge ourselves in the Learning Zone because the longer we stay shut-down in the Comfort Zone, the more upset we become with ourselves. And because we don’t like ourselves for not being congruent in all aspects of our lives, the more we resist moving out of it — to move out of it would be to prove we were ‘wrong’ to stay there and if we’re wrong, might we lose our jobs?

    To encourage a team member to move out of it requires the very thing you were speaking of last week — trust.

    Looking forward to reading more on this conversation!

  2. This is an interesting perspective from Bill. I’m not sure I am in alignment on this one Ian.
    My intention is always to help others expand their self awareness and learning zone. When we become open to learn we expand from our comfort zone into learning and reduce potential panic. Panic is not a given… Although moving into discomfort usually is.
    I feel that being curious and open to whatever comes up and being able to acknowledge what is happening in the present moment is key for leadership success and well being.

    1. Thanks for this commentary Val. On reading your thoughts I actually think we are in alignment. I do believe that it is about finding our way to remain on the learning zone, and to overcome the inner resistance that draws us back to our comfort zone. Check back in next week … I think the rest of my thoughts on this subject will become clear!

  3. I have always thought that I was a words and numbers person. I think today that I have discovered that is not the case. The imagery of the circles has been another of those ‘clink’ moments that really signifies to me what happens in my attempting change. The image of that red panic circle pressing from the outside (which I see as events and issues) and the inner (which I see as me) comfort zone trying to get more space is visually and metaphorically powerful.

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