The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 71

Andy Molinsky


What would you accomplish if you could overcome your fears? Andy Molinsky is a professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School and the author of Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence. He studies how and why we take risks–and why we don’t. Discover the power of naming your fears, the importance of conviction, and how to determine when it’s okay to only go “knee deep.”


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Book: Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence
Bio: Andy Molinsky is a Professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School. Andy helps people develop the insights and courage necessary to act outside their personal and cultural comfort zones when doing important, but challenging, tasks in work and life. His work has been featured in HBR, the Financial Times, the Boston Globe, NPR and Voice of America.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast, I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With us today is Andy Molinsky, he is an award winning author, he’s a Professor of Psychology and Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University’s International Business School where he specializes in behavior change and cross cultural interaction in business settings. It’s my pleasure to have Andy with us today. He’s written about topic that is close to my heart and a topic that we focus on a lot at Bregman partners is the idea of stepping outside of your comfort zone. The book that we’re talking about today is, ‘Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence.’ Andy, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Andy: I’m happy to be here, thanks for having me.

Peter: Andy, I want to start with this very basic question. Which is why is it important to step outside your comfort zone?

Andy: I think the reason has to do with personal growth, I would say. There has to be something in it for you. I think we often have ambitions to do something at work, to try out different tasks, to step into a new role, maybe start a new business, confront a new challenge and find a new job. A lot of these situations, these sort of transitional situations force us out of our comfort zone and we of course can avoid doing these things, I think we’re pretty good at it but if you do want to approach instead of avoid, I think you’re going to bump up against a challenge often, of having to stretch outside your comfort zone.

Peter: It’s interesting you use the word ambition because I think that’s what it’s about in many ways. I was, years and years ago, with a friend of mine at the beach and she was standing in the ocean about knee deep and I dove into the wave and I was yelling at her, “Come out here!” And she said, “No, no, no, I’m fine here.” And I yelled again, “Come out!” She responded, “I’m scared of the water.” And I responded, “You’re fine, I’m here, you’ll be safe.” And she got upset and said, “No, I’m fine, I don’t want to go out here.” And it was the first time that I met against this concept because so much of what drives me is my ambition to do bigger things and to learn more and to grow. But it was the first time I came up against this idea that it’s completely valid to go knee deep and say, “I’m okay here.” And I wonder whether in all of your research whether you’ve met these people who have no desire to step outside of their comfort zone and it feels like that’s right for them and that’s okay. Or whether we should all be pursuing ambitions that are slightly bigger than we’re comfortable with.

Andy: That’s a really good question. I wouldn’t even necessarily type it as a person. It could be different parts or times of your life as well. Right?

Peter: That makes a lot of sense.

Andy: There could be a certain time in your life. I remember, I even talk about this in the book where I’ve always had the ambition to do something entrepreneurial and at the time, I remember when I was thinking about this. And by entrepreneurial I mean write a book, maybe start to do some consulting and so on, maybe even build a small business. I’ve always wanted to do that.

I was also pursuing at least initially the traditional academic path and I was struggling and trying to get tenure, which is, for those of you who don’t know, it’s essentially, you have about six or seven years, depends on what school you’re at, to create a national or international reputation for your research and then the school writes for letters from experts in the world on your field and they basically give you a thumbs up or thumbs down. If you get a thumbs up, you have a job for life, thumbs down, you’re fired.

Peter: You’re looking for a job for life.

Andy: You’re looking for a job. As you can imagine, it was an incredibly stressful time and on top of that, we were having our first child, my wife and I. I don’t think that was a time when I was going to venture deeper into the water, I mean some people might have done it, I think. But I don’t know, maybe I was too realistic, too sensible to risk averse … I guess in that case, maybe sensible. Now, my kids are ten and twelve. I have tenure and so on and I now have the freedom in life and at work to maybe venture off into the deeper oceans, so to speak. But I still get afraid.

Peter: You bring up such an amazing point and it’s a distinction between the world of academia and the world that many of the listeners are in and many of us are in, in organizations. You are in a situation in which you have a committed job for life. You’re saying, “before I didn’t have a job for life and I didn’t really want to take risks until I knew that that was solid,” but everybody who’s not in academia who’s out there working is thinking, “I’m going to take risks at my work but I don’t have a job for life. If I take these risks, they hold great potential but the downside is also more than just emotional. The downside is I might lose my job, I might get demoted, I might get passed up for a promotion.” How do you help people think about that challenge?

Andy: That’s a good question. I was thinking about your story earlier about your friend in the water.

Peter: Let’s call her Kathy, because that’s her name.

Andy: That’s her name. I was thinking about Kathy in the water and I think it’s very hard sometimes, we do put up a lot of defenses around us in the sense that we can sort of rationalize to ourselves that I don’t want to venture into deeper water, I’m perfectly comfortable here. Maybe start to think about how I even really like shallow water for x, y and z reasons. Sometimes those answers and those stories we tell ourselves are true and authentic and honest and sometimes I think we’re defending against trying something new. It’s very, very hard to disentangle the two.

What I often advise people is to ask yourself, do a little thought exercise and sometimes this works for me. If you had a magic wand and you could just erase all the anxiety and the fear and the worry around the situation, in that circumstance then would this be something you’d want to do. If you could literally just get rid of the fear and worry and if you can engage in that thought exercise and if you can actually see and say, “Yeah it actually would be cool to go into that deeper water.” That sometimes helps pull apart the worry from the ambition. Do you know what I mean?

Peter: Is the ‘worry’ data that we should be listening to? Is the anxiety around the comfort zone something to erase or is it something to listen to?

Andy: I think it’s data for sure. Once you treat it as data, you start to have a bit more distance from your emotion and I think you’re more capable of handling it. I think also it’s important to think of it as data in the sense that the more fine grain you can be about what the source is, the more equipped you’ll be in order to handle it.

For example, in the book I talk about all sorts of psychological road blocks that people face when stepping outside their comfort zone. You might coat it in some way as general fear or anxiety but it actually might be that you’re worried that you’ll feel inauthentic. Or you’re worried that you won’t be liked or you worry that you’ll feel and look incompetent and so on. I think the more you start to put a name to these fears and to identify them, I think the more control you start having over them.

Peter: I’m just going to mention the other two that you talk about which is resentment and morality. The sense that you may be immoral or that you may feel resentment, I think if I’m remembering it correctly.

Andy: That’s right. Logically you know when in Rome, act like the Romans. In this situation, this is what I’ve got to do, whatever it might be. I’m in a networking event, I’ve got to find a way to make chit chat and promote myself.

Peter: But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Andy: Exactly. And then the morality one is people don’t always feel this but I ran into a lot of stories of people who did, I have to tell you. I opened the book with a story of a young entrepreneur who ended up having to fire her best friend. I spoke with a woman who was a booker at a national T.V. show and her job was to get people on the air. To be the first to get people on the air even if it was the case of a tragedy and then she had to get the family to come on air and talk about it and compete with all the other networks and be pushy about it. You could imagine, I mean she said that a piece of her soul was sucked out every time she did that and she eventually left, but that’s a good example. The morality challenge. My point I guess is that we all face psychological road blocks of one form or another and sometimes combinations like a cocktail of them. I think that can make it tough to step outside your comfort zone. Identifying them and putting a name to them, I think is the first step.

Peter: You mentioned in your book. People fear crying, they don’t want to cry. It struck me, I wrote that sentence down because it’s one of these really interesting examples where … I’ll put myself in that category. If I’m in a meeting with someone and even if I feel emotionally touched and I feel tears in my eyes, I’m going to find it a little embarrassing and I kind of want to hold back. On the other hand, when I’m on the other side of that and I see somebody who’s crying or somebody whose tears well up in emotion, I’m so deeply touched by that. There’s this discrepancy, this disconnect between how I judge myself and how I judge other people.

In terms of doing something that’s outside of my comfort zone, when someone else does something, I don’t judge them for it. But when I’m doing that same thing, I judge myself and I try to stop myself from doing it. Did you explore this at all in your research?

Andy: I didn’t but it’s a really interesting question. I imagine it has to do with a lot of things like we could speculate but about your role in that situation, potentially. It could be the feeling of psychological safety you have in that relationship and perhaps in the context as well. Could be gender related, almost like gender expectations or your role expectations, who I’m expected or supposed to be in this situation. Although, actually no, I have to tell you, I did encounter this.

I’m sorry, it just occurred to me as we were talking. You know where I encountered this? It was when I was studying police officers. As part of this research I studied people from all sorts of professions. Entrepreneurs, managers, doctors, police officers, rabbi’s, priests, baristas, you name it, even a goat farmer.

In one of the sets of people that I studied along with my colleague was a friend of mine and a Harvard Business School Professor. We studied police officers evicting people from their homes and I remember I personally did a ride along it’s called, with two police officers in their car through a major metropolitan city. It was an entire day of evictions that I was in the back of the cop car with the bullet proof vest and everything.

Peter: Were you outside your comfort zone?

Andy: Definitely. Literally outside my comfort zone. These are like the worst neighborhoods of this major city. Yes. Definitely outside of my comfort zone. It was a very surreal experience, I have to tell you, to be in a police car, we can get into that. One funny thing was going through a red light. What a weird experience.

Peter: It’s a complete cognitive disconnect.

Andy: Exactly. Your visceral reaction is wait, that’s not appropriate, you’re going to get caught and then you realize you’re in a police car. They did talk about crying and they talked about how it was okay to show some emotion but ultimately that’s not the role that their in and that’s not how they see people. That’s not their perception and their sense making of the way that people want to see them.

Peter: So interesting because as you’re speaking, I’m thinking that in a nutshell is the birthplace of innovation. I mean I know we’re not talking specifically about innovation but if I’m willing to do something differently than everybody else in my role is willing to do, that’s a risk that makes me distinctive from everybody else. It could get me thrown out of the group or it could make me distinctive enough to say, there’s someone who’s really special and really capable. I think part of the discernment of stepping outside of our comfort zones is recognizing that every role, every job, every community, every culture, every organizational culture has its own comfort zone. There’s not just a comfort zone to us as an individual. There’s a comfort zone to the culture and if we’re willing to push the boundaries of that comfort zone, we end up being really distinct from the people around us, which has its own issues. Which could be really, really great or it could get us in effect, exiled.

Andy: That goes back to your original question about why step outside your comfort zone. One of the answers could be distinctiveness and innovation. Right? Or, by the way, on the flip side it could be breaking the rules, breaking the norms and or failing in innovation. Right? So that’s the inherent risk.

Peter: Right. There’s nothing wrong with walking around barefoot but if you go into a museum barefoot that’s a different step than if you’re going to a beach barefoot.

Andy: Exactly. Although maybe the museum will realize that there’s tremendous upside from this experience and that there’s this tactile experience of being in museum barefoot that revolutionizes museums.

Peter: And that’s the potential.

Andy: There’s your innovation.

Peter: Exactly. A lot of the work that I do and I’m focused on in terms of leadership is in the category of what I call emotional courage. Emotional courage is the willingness to feel things. In my perspective, when people are afraid of taking risks, they’re not afraid of the risk itself. Nobody is afraid of literally the physical act of walking barefoot in a museum, that’s not hard to do. It’s not hard to raise a difficult conversation by telling someone how you feel. The act of telling them how you feel in a vacuum is not hard, you could do it with a mirror. But when I do it with you, if it involves you, if it involves a criticism, I’m going to start to feel all sorts of things. I’m going to feel badly, I don’t want to hurt. I’m going to feel the possibility of your rejection. I’m going to feel possibly shame. The challenge of stepping outside of a comfort zone, all of those are situations of stepping outside of a comfort zone, the challenge, I think is the challenge of feeling. What am I willing to feel?

One of the things that I often talk about is that if I’m willing to feel everything, I can do anything. If I’m willing to feel the embarrassment or the shame or your rejection or the risk or the failure, then I can do anything. I wonder also, in terms of your research, whether that resonates with you and whether you have light to shed on that. This idea that the courage to step outside of our comfort zone is ultimately a courage of what are we willing to feel.

Andy: Yeah, I think so. I think what I would say is that’s true.

Peter: Don’t be bashful about disagreeing with me if you disagree.

Andy: No, right. That could get into feelings. No, I have no problem disagreeing I’m just trying to think of how I want to phrase what I have to say. I don’t think it’s purely … Like if we were then trying to extrapolate to how we would train or coach people, I don’t think it would exclusively be about tolerance for feeling. Although, I think that that’s important. I think it would be also around identifying and making sense of your feelings because I think that you start to have a bit more … The feelings lose a bit of their power and intensity if you can name them. I also thing that we have the capacity to sculpt, to some degree how we feel. We have the capacity to adjust and alter situations. We have the capacity to engage in sense making that can, not necessarily erase feelings but alter feelings.

Peter: We can reduce their intensity.

Andy: Could either reduce their intensity or change them. So for example, I could be embarrassed or ashamed about something but after having made sense of the situation in a different way, I might feel a combination of embarrassment and pride or whatever it might be. I think the power of sense making is quite powerful so it’s not … I don’t think it’s simply I guess in my view of question of tolerating the experience of feelings. Although, that’s critical because if people aren’t capable of doing that then you’re right, I think that there’s not a good possibility of them being able to stretch outside their comfort zone. I think there’s actually more to it, which is good because if you say there’s more to it, it’s ultimately that there are more tools in your tool kit. Right?

Peter: Right. You talk about these tools. You talk about conviction, customization, clarity, which are ways of maybe reducing or shifting the feeling a way that reduces the barrier to your willingness to take the action that might bring you outside your comfort zone.

Andy: Exactly. I think that with psychology would say in my view is that it’s not that emotion or anxiety or stress is bad. Oftentimes you want to have some of it to be able to perform at peak performance. Right? You want to feel juiced or excited, you need some anxiety but there’s a threshold for it and I think that threshold is very personal. Right? We all have different threshold but you don’t want it to be over the top, you don’t want to be flooded because if that’s the case, you’re not going to have the capacity to be yourself or to be authentic, to be effective and all of that. So, I think it has to do with the mechanisms of changing and sculpting but also tolerating emotion.

The tools that I provide are for example, conviction. The idea of … We can go through them but I don’t know if we want to go through all of them. But conviction is the idea of having that deep sense of purpose in what you’re doing. I’ve found across the board, that was so critical for people to identify and own. Of course, the source of conviction is so variable. Different people have different sources of conviction and it has to be very meaningful to you. Identifying that as a tool, locating and then embracing your own source of personal conviction ends up being quite powerful I’ve found.

Peter: You also talked about customization, the idea of doing things your own way so that it’s more acceptable to you. You’re able to have the hard conversation the way that you would have the hard conversation.
Andy: Or even a little bit more … It’s sort of like situation sculpting in some ways. I’ll give you two … I mean I have a lot of examples in the book from all sorts of professions. I’ve got two cool examples last week people told me which I thought was kind of neat.

One guy is a former banker, like kind of a big time banker. If you looked at him you’d think it was impossible that he was afraid to speak in public. He told me that 20 years ago he was terrified to speak in public. He was giving a big speech, one of his first big speeches in Boston and he flew up a close buddy of his from New York City with a soul purpose of sitting eighth row, center in his speech. Literally to have that smiley, friendly-

Peter: That’s a great idea and it’s an idea of someone with deep pockets but it’s a great idea.

Andy: Exactly. But here’s another example of someone without deep pockets. The other story was actually a student of mine, an MBA student and she’s very, very shy. She really wants to be able to meet people, frankly. You know, professionally for sure but even socially and so she would go to parties or not even networking, let’s just say parties or get togethers. She’d sit in the corner and not really talk with anybody and so on and then she had this brilliant idea … And she loves to take photos.

She brought a selfie stick to a party. If you think about it, what a great prop. Right? Because all of a sudden it facilitates interaction, people are curious are about it, people think it’s cool, they take pictures, it creates a social sort of glue. Then there’s a rationale or a reason for her to exchange emails and so on. It was like this massive change for her just bringing that little prop. That’s just an example of I think we have more power than we think to make these subtle but meaningful changes in the situations we encounter. That can change the emotions, in some ways. You were talking about either the presence or absence of certain emotions and their intensity.

Peter: She just has to take that step once which is to bring the selfie stick. That in and of itself might be stepping outside her comfort zone. But once she has it, everything takes care of itself versus otherwise, she would have to well up the courage to go to each person one at a time and there’s probably some issue of the quality of the comfort zone reach but also the quantity of it. If you have to do it 30 times at a party, I imagine that it would be overwhelming. If you do it once, just to get to the party dressed the way you’re dressed, gets people asking questions, well now you’ve taken care of that. It still takes some stepping outside your comfort zone but less frequently in a way that allows you to get more of what you want.

Andy: Yeah. It worked for her.

Peter: Andy, thank you so much. The book is Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence. The subject is such a critical subject for any of us who have any desire, ambition as you said at the beginning of this conversation, to reach beyond where we are right now. It’s going to require that we do some things that are completely new to us, that are probably uncomfortable, that may feel inauthentic, that may risk our likability, that may make us feel incompetent, all of the stuff that you talk about in your book. You give us some really great ways to steep outside of that comfort zone and into the space that we can create for ourselves and our potential. Andy Molinsky, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Andy: Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of Bregman Leadership Podcast please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.