I've been the source of jealousy among my co-workers every year since 2011. The reason? I get to travel to the Inc. 5000 Conference (our company has been fortunate enough to make the list since 2011). The conference is a unique blend of innovators, thinkers, entrepreneurs, researchers, artists, designers, and leaders.

The conference just finished up … and my biggest takeaway, which I heard from nearly every speaker and saw in messages throughout the conference, was this message:

You have to get out of your comfort zone!

I heard this from Dr. Brene Brown in her riveting speech on the power of vulnerability. She said that, as leaders, "you can choose comfort or you can choose courage" but you can't have both. The message is clear that comfortable leaders aren't pushing themselves or their companies to their zenith.

The notebook each participant received included GoDaddy founder Bob Parson's 16 Rules for Success--his top rule? Get and stay out of your comfort zone. "I believe that not much happens of any significance when we're in our comfort zone." Doesn't get much more straightforward than that.

Michael Dell voiced that part of his company Dell's success was its culture of "accepting and embracing risk." A breakout session on disruptive companies yielded this piece of advice from Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean, "If you don't push out a bit and get out of your comfort zone, you won't grow. Period."

Clearly, this idea is critical for top entrepreneurs to build their businesses. What's even more interesting, though, is that it relates to neuroscience. Habitual thinking is the brain's way of keeping you efficient, but it also tends to keep you in your comfort zone. If you know what works one time, your brain starts to recognize this and create more defined neural pathways that allow you to almost unconsciously create an efficient action.

That's great for your drive to work every morning or your email routine. But, it's not necessarily great for coming up with the next game-changing idea. Habits probably won't help you out-innovate your competitors or find a blue ocean that you never considered before.

In essence, your natural tendency is to stay in your comfort zone--both in your thinking and emotionally, as Dr. Brown's research points out.

The biggest benefit of going to a conference like Inc. 5000 is three days of intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to engage with people who challenge your ways of thinking, your brand, or company direction.

Here are 5 ways to follow the advice of the world's top entrepreneurs and get out of your comfort zone:

  1. Talk to someone completely new: Even if you're a quieter person, you can still seek out a one-on-one meeting with a new person or participate in an online event around a new topic. Marshall Goldsmith echoed this idea at the conference stating, "The people around us tend to keep us who we are, so find others who can help you grow."
  2. Deliberately seek out a different perspective: You know how you think. Now find someone who thinks differently from you and actively push that difference. How? Look for a provocative topic in a LinkedIn group and reach out to a contributor with an idea different from your own. Find a colleague who always challenges your opinion and instead of being annoyed, look to partner on a new project.
  3. Discover a topic that's completely outside your industry: You could listen to Gary Vaynerchuk talk about the wine business. Without even knowing it, ideas will seep into your head to take into your market.
  4. Do what doesn't come naturally to you: If you're a person who thinks in a very abstract manner, challenge yourself to be very concrete, detail-oriented, and empathic around your next big meeting or proposal. You'll see how tough it is, but it will be rewarding when you do it well. You'll also undoubtedly develop a greater appreciation for those around you who do those things well.
  5. Be open: This is the most important one. Whether it's at a conference like Inc. 5000 or a meetup in your city, you're going to meet smart people who you can learn from. Be open to what they will ask you, and ask them the tough questions that you're having a hard time answering.

By imparting a little cognitive dissonance, shaking up the routine, the people, or the environment in which you're working, you'll push yourself to new levels and you'll actually develop new ways of thinking. Getting out of your comfort zone isn't easy but the rewards can be huge, ranging from the next big idea to an unexpected contract. We've seen both happen, and so will you.

Published on: Oct 22, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.