Early in my career, I was a management trainer for a Denver-based employers’ council, teaching more than 20 different leadership and soft-skill courses for client companies across the country. I was pretty good too. My repeat business was at an all-time high as my clients continually asked me back. By most people’s standards, I was very successful.
And yet something was missing.
My trainings were starting to blend together, causing me to sound more robotic in the process. I found myself in a rut, simply going through the motions without the passion that always went hand-in-hand with my words. My energy was fading; I was burning out.
Right about this time, I overheard a conversation in the break room between a couple of my colleagues, Terry and Sara, about an adventure program that Terry had done on a high ropes course.
I couldn’t resist interrupting, “What’s a high ropes course?” I asked.
Terry smiled, happy to draw me in. “A high ropes course involves a series of challenging activities high off the ground,” as he pointed up toward the ceiling. “Picture a telephone pole and you have an idea about how high off the ground I’m talking about.”
“And what’s the point of these activities?” I asked.
“You almost have to experience it for yourself to truly understand the value. What I can tell you is that you’ll learn more about yourself than you’d ever imagine.”
As Terry continued talking about his high ropes experience, my mind drifted over to my own dilemma. I interrupted him again. “Do you think that program would help me do a reset on life?” I was only half joking.
He nodded. “And a whole lot more! You should do it.”
I realized that this was exactly what I needed. “Then I’m doing it!”
I felt a surge of energy—something I hadn’t felt for quite a while. I walked to my office and registered for the next program before I could talk myself out of it.
The High Ropes Course
After a few, light, team-building exercises to start the morning off, our instructor Tim pointed over to our next activity, off in the distance. We all gazed in the direction of his finger.
About 50 yards away was the infamous Power Pole, a 35-foot pole with a small platform on top. I winced, Are you kidding me!
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had seen this activity on YouTube before. First you have to climb to the top of the pole with nothing but a belay rope. Then you have to maneuver yourself up on the platform so you can stand on top of the pole. And if that’s not enough, the pole wobbles and the only way down is to jump and trust that your teammates are still holding on to the belay rope to let you down.
Simple enough, right?
Not if you have a fear of heights, or trust issues, or balance problems, or any other limitation—whether physical, emotional, or mental. In fact, the woman who was climbing the pole on the YouTube video began hyperventilating as she reached the top and literally froze. Eventually a rescue team had to peel her off the pole and help her back down.
But that was about her. This will be nothing like that, I wanted to believe.
As we approached, the pole appeared taller and thinner. I panicked. I’m not sure I can do this! That thing doesn’t look sturdy. What if I start hyperventilating like that lady did in the video? And why are we doing the power pole right off the bat? Shouldn’t we ease into something this dangerous?
I sized up the other nine participants in the program. I needed a strategy. I needed a plan…a survival plan.
And then it came to me. I know, I’ll go fifth!
It was the perfect plan. I’d place myself right smack in the middle of the group, thereby enabling me to carefully watch and learn from the first four! By the time my turn came, I’d know exactly what to do. I giggled thinking that going in the middle also would separate me from the few more fearful stragglers than me who undoubtedly would get stuck on the pole like the lady in the video.
With my strategy intact, I was ready.
Or so I thought.
At the base of the pole, Tim asked us all to sit down. He grabbed a nearby stick and drew a circle in the dirt.
“Do you see this circle? This circle represents your comfort zone. The inside is where your greatest comfort comes from; it’s what you know…it’s what you’re used to…and it’s safe.”
Then he pointed to the area outside the circle. “What do you think this area represents?”
“Risk,” shouted one participant.
“The unknown,” added another.
“Our growth area,” I yelled, still not sure where he was going with the demonstration.
Tim smiled. “That’s right. So, what’s our natural tendency when we get to the edge of our comfort zone? Do we take a step out or do take a step back in?”
We all looked at each other before someone said, “I think we move back into the comfort zone.”
Tim nodded. “I think you’re right. And here’s the problem with that. Imagine that each time we retreat back into the comfort zone, we add a layer of bricks around the outside of the circle…and then another layer and another layer. Eventually the bricks get so high that we can no longer see out.”
“So, what you are saying,” I added, “is that instead of our comfort zone expanding, it closes in and gets smaller.”
Tim’s eyebrows lifted up. “Yes!”
“But how do you know if that’s happening?” asks another participant.
“Simple. You stop taking risks. You stop challenging yourself.” And then he paused before emphasizing, “You stop growing.”
At this point we were all so focused on the conversation, that we forgot about the giant power pole looming in front of us.
Tim pointed to the edge of the circle again. “Tell me this. What would happen to our circle, our comfort zone, if instead of retreating we took a baby step outside the circle?”
“Your circle expands!” someone shouted.
“Exactly,” Tim said. “And this power pole activity is an opportunity for many of you to expand your comfort zones.”
It was as if I had been hit by one of those metaphoric bricks. Ah! Now I see where he’s going with all of this. He was talking about me! I realized that I was living in a shrinking comfort zone. No wonder I had lost my passion, I couldn’t see over the brick wall that was blocking my view. And to top it off, my “I’ll go fifth” strategy was more of the same.
I was reminded of the quote, “If you want things to stay the same, then keep doing what you are doing,” which was what I was doing. I thought more about it. Why did I sign up for this workshop in the first place? Wasn’t it to shake things up in my life and discover what’s important? Or, was it to continue doing what I always do, and thus get the results I always get?
The answer was clear to me. I put myself in this workshop so I could change things up and view the world from a different perspective. Maintaining the status quo was no longer acceptable. And that meant, “going fifth” was no longer an option. It was time for a bold move!
Tim’s voice suddenly brought me back to the group. “So, who wants to go first?”
I cringed and raised my hand. I felt like I was back in second grade, hoping someone else would get picked. But no, not this time. Instead, everyone in the group looked over at me and shouted, with conviction, “Yes! Geese needs to go first!”
All I could think was, Crap! Was it that obvious?
The Power Pole
If I thought too much about what I was doing, it would be the kiss of death. I raced up the pole, making sure to not look down. At the top I was faced with the difficult challenge of lifting myself up to the loose platform that sits on top of the pole. This was much more difficult than I could have ever imagined. Not only was there nothing to hold on to, but I suddenly remembered that I was 35 feet above ground, hanging on to a pole that was swaying in the wind.
It was a moment that I’ll never forget. Part of me wanted to hold on for dear life, hoping to wake up from this nightmare with the realization that it was only a dream, while the other part of me wanted to persevere, trusting that I’d find a way to triumph.
The voices from the group grew louder. “Come on, Geese, you can do it! You’re almost there!”
I heard every comment and suggestion. In fact, I totally relied on the group to slowly and methodically instruct me the rest of the way. “Now move your left hand to the other side…that’s right, just like that. Excellent! Now place both feet together and gently lift…nice and slow.”
Before I knew it, I was standing on the little platform on top of the pole. My body was literally trembling from head to toe, but it didn’t matter. I had done it. I made it to the top! The group cheered, “You’re the man! You go Geese!”
I tried to smile, but I knew the hardest part still separated me from landing safely back on the ground. I had to leap toward the trapeze that was seven feet away, and grab ahold of it. Again, the group roared from below, “We got you Geese, let her rip!”
I bent my knees just a bit, took a big breath, and lunged like I had never lunged before…and totally missed the bar. But you know what? It didn’t matter. My team pulled the rope tight at that very moment, causing me to gently sway back and forth as they lowered me to the ground, cheering as they did so.
In that moment, I was emotionally wiped out—yet happily content—like I had just crossed the finish line in a marathon. More importantly, I knew that I had gotten exactly what I was hoping to get from the workshop. I had rediscovered my passion for life! I realized that I had gotten too content with the status quo and my comfort zone was closing in instead of expanding.
I don’t remember a whole lot more about the rest of the program, other than I couldn’t stop smiling for the whole two days. It was like my inner child had taken over and I could simply play and be a kid again.
Although I continued to have very profound insights about my experience on the pole, I’d like to share a few bullet points of what I learned from that experience:
- The pole itself wasn’t that difficult to climb. What made it difficult was how I built the whole experience up in my mind before ever climbing it.
- It is very comfortable to live in my comfort zone, but I stop growing when I do that.
- The easiest way to step out of my comfort zone is by having a goal or desire or outcome that sits just beyond it. However, this requires knowing what I want.
- I had lost my passion back at work because I had lost sight of my purpose. That’s what caused my burnout.
- I used to make fun of “purpose statements” but I learned that having a purpose is what gives me direction. And by having a direction, I’m able to know what I want and how to make it happen.
- I never could have successfully climbed the pole without the help from the group below. Likewise, I cannot achieve my purpose in life without the help of others.
- Years later, whenever I’m tempted to “go fifth” in life, I visualize being back on the pole and remind myself that the only thing that separates me from achieving the life I want is me. And if I want something badly enough, all I have to do is go for it with everything I have. That way, even if I miss the trapeze, I will still have expanded my comfort zone.
*This story is from Geese’s new book, It’s All About Me.