By Brian Townley

“Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us, unplayed.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

 Stepping out into a swimming pool takes a certain measure of courage. We contemplate if the water is too cold or too deep; we examine the environment to see if it suits us. Then, we examine ourselves and determine if we are in a place where we feel comfortable.

 A few more steps, and we slowly adjust to the water and test our courage even further. We relax and find our place where we can stand with little effort and keep an eye on our surroundings. We may even just stay there for a while, a long while.

 Then again, we may want to get more out of our time in the pool. We put some effort into our experience and swim some laps for exercise. We look forward and push ourselves to reach the destination, the finish line, the edge of the pool, where we can stop and rest or turn around and keep moving.

 We’ve moved into our risk zone, a place where we can grow and expand. We are becoming stronger, faster, and more confident in our ability. We may even set some goals to swim a certain number of laps every day, to improve our time, and to increase our distance. We use the risk zone as a place not to stagnate but to be better tomorrow than we are today.

 We may even improve to the point where we join a swim club and look for opportunities to swim in open water. It’s there that we must begin to assess our danger zone. We recognize this environment contains many unknowns, and we may not have the support of a trained lifeguard to rescue us if we experience trouble.

 We may be on our own or with a group of other swimmers, but even they may not be able to assist if things get dicey. We learn that going out into a natural water setting is much different than swimming laps in a contained, monitored, and measured swimming environment. The outcome is much more dangerous and harder to predict. We are attracted by the thrill but must assess the risk and determine when the risk outweighs the benefits and becomes dangerous.

 We continue to grow and evolve as a leader by finding a balance between the comfort zone and the risk zone. The comfort zone—a comfortable couch, a safe place to unwind—is necessary to our balance as a leader. It provides rest and rejuvenation. We don’t want to stay there indefinitely or it will become a crutch. Don’t get too cozy in the comfort zone! The risk zone—a place that gets our heart rate revved up; the treadmill of life—pushing us forward and sharpening our edges.

 We might not be surprised to know that 80 percent of people “live” in the comfort zone. It’s risk-free and doesn’t demand too much of us. It’s safe and comfortable and doesn’t put us “out there” in the scary places where we may get noticed, fall, or skin our knees and be laughed at, so to speak. We can get by in the comfort zone just fine; fighting off the thoughts of regret while clutching to mediocrity.

 But, it’s not OK at all for leaders to wallow there too long. It’s outside of that space where we join the other 20 percent who are living life. They are exploring new things, pursuing their dreams, facing their fears, taking on risks, and welcoming opportunity. They don’t shy away from things that are difficult or that invoke fear. In fact, they like the challenge and muster the courage to go forward regardless of the situation or the circumstance.

 This philosophy reminds me of my friend Tanner McElroy, who had trained his whole life to be a baseball player. He was a natural athlete who excelled due to hard work and training. He focused on his strengths and earned a college scholarship, setting school records before being recruited to the Texas Rangers.

 That’s when his dream of playing professional baseball crashed. He sustained an injury requiring surgery and a long recuperation. Disappointment set in, but Tanner was determined not to let this setback curb his drive. Instead, he focused his mental energy on writing a novel.

 While writing had always been a hobby for Tanner, he had never had so much time to focus on this pursuit. Now, his circumstances provided him with the chance to do something he had planned to do much further in the future. Tanner was reinventing himself. He was no longer on the pitcher’s mound, but he still felt the pressure to be the best version of himself.

 His new project was completely out of his comfort zone, but his novel, War of Wings, became a best-seller and is now being made into a motion picture. Tanner’s story inspires me in so many ways. He didn’t have a choice, but he found a solution and tapped into unknown talents. Now, he is ready to do anything. Like a child who just learned to swim, he is now diving into the deep end.

 Tanner was open to trying new things and realizing that he wasn’t just made to play baseball. He applied the discipline and determination required of him as an athlete to his writing. He faced fears of failing by driving himself to succeed. He turned a negative into a positive.

 Moving outside of the comfort zone into the risk zone expands our abilities to take even further risks. In fact, the risk zone we just entered will soon become our new comfort zone. It’s not a place to stay indefinitely. The bigger risk is not continuing to step outside of that easy space into the unknown. That’s where real growth happens.

 A risk zone is a place of vulnerability. Tanner was familiar with that feeling as a pitcher. All eyes were on him as he was expected to get a player to strike out. He learned to leave it all out there at the end of the game. He knew he had given it his best shot, win or lose.

 With his book, it wasn’t until the project was going on the press that doubts started to creep in. It was too late to turn back now, but fearing what others would think of his story began to cast shadows. He realized that he had expressed himself through the characters and story and was giving away a part of himself to his readers.

 Then he decided to stand firm in knowing he had given it his best, just like he did as a pitcher. He was aware that people want to be moved and inspired. They want to latch onto something, and he believes his story is one that offers that message. He faced his doubts and learned that he could withstand any possible criticism because he had produced his best work.

 Now he is working on his next book. Being in the risk zone is what leaders strive for. The freedom and challenges that occur there will continue to pull a leader to that space. Being stagnant will never be acceptable again.

 Successful leaders must be willing to try something new. Everyone starts from their beginning. You can’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle or end. In fact, every time a leader steps into the risk zone, it is a new beginning, one that is uniquely theirs. It’s the place that keeps us motivated and refines us as leaders.

 Come see Brian Townley and Tanner McElroy share their inspiring stories at a special luncheon hosted by the Hewitt Chamber from 11:30 – 1:30 on October 10th at The Pavilion in Woodway. Contact Laura at 666.1200 for more information.