Business is good, your family life is happy, and your workplace is humming along. What should you do? 

Now's the time to give yourself a major challenge that falls well outside your usual successful routines. That's the word from Lauren Kessler, author of nine books, most recently Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker​. As an adolescent, Kessler aspired to be a ballerina, but both her dreams and her ego were crushed when a ballet master decreed that she had the wrong body for the profession, calling her "bottom heavy." 

More than 40 years later, now a successful author and the  mother of grown children, Kessler decided to boot herself out of her own comfort zone by dancing a small role in the classic Christmas ballet with a touring company based in her home town of Eugene, Oregon. It meant stretching herself to new physical extremes and keeping up with professional dancers in their 20s. It meant learning to dance in high heels, follow ballet choreography, and apply heavy theatrical makeup to a usually bare face. It meant learning to face the audience with a smile, despite self-criticism and fear of making a mistake. It meant learning to keep smiling and go on dancing even when she did make a mistake. 

In other words, it was exactly the kind of shake-up she wanted, and exactly the kind of challenge she loves to take on. Here are just some of the benefits shaking up a successful routine can bring:

1. It keeps you from going on autopilot.

We all love being "in the groove," Kessler says, but over time, that groove can become a rut. "It's deep, it feels comfortable, you've made it yourself," she says. "But at a certain point you may need to extract yourself from it by taking a risk. The better you are at what you do, the more you can go on autopilot." Autopilot is not a good place to be.

2. It pushes you past fear of failure.

"Fear of failure stunts growth," Kessler says. Doing something outside your comfort zone will usually force you to confront that fear of failure, and take on a new challenge in spite of it. The more you can face down fear of failure and gather the courage to try something anyway, the better off you and your company will be. 

3. It may help you be kind to yourself.

If you're like many professionals and entrepreneurs, holding yourself to high standards is a way of life. There's nothing wrong with pushing yourself to try hard; what's bad is the heartless self-criticism that follows for many of us if our efforts are unsuccessful. Kessler admits she herself is an incurable self-criticizer--she once actually scolded herself for failing a self-compassion test. 

Setting yourself a new challenge and taking on something you're not good at is not only an opportunity to fail, but also an opportunity to forgive yourself for that failure. It gives you the chance to applaud your own efforts, even at something you're not very good at. As Kessler says, "I want to find that precarious place of holding myself to a very high standard and not beating myself up while I'm doing it."

4. It saves you from getting smug.

One of the biggest dangers in getting comfortable at what you do is that it's tempting to start feeling--or acting--like you have everything figured out. Attempting something you're not sure you can accomplish is a great way to kill that temptation, especially if it means becoming a beginner in a new field--as Kessler did when she had to take a prep class for the prep class that would prepare her to take class with the troupe.

"To be successful and not be full of yourself because of it is a wonderful thing," she says. "It's very attractive and it invites people into your circle. A lot of us are really sick of the diva approach--'I'm good, I know I'm good, I don't have time for you.' There will always be people like that, so why add to it?"

5. It prepares you for dealing with an uncertain world.

Why shake up your own life? Because even if you don't, someday, somehow, something else will. Whether it's the loss of a job, the failure of a company, divorce, the death of a loved one, or a serious illness, at some point in our lives we all go through massive disruption, usually more than once. If you've made it a practice to step outside your comfort zone voluntarily, you'll be in better shape to adapt when one of life's major events knocks you out of there.

6. It's always worth trying to do what you love.

"It's a cliche to say 'find your passion and follow it,' but I guess cliches are there for a reason," Kessler says. "You can't trudge through life something you don't love because it brings you some money. It's not a fulfilling life. If you're working for money so you can gather enough of it to escape your job, that doesn't seem like a good tradeoff to me at all."

What sustained Kessler through the pre-dawn classes, the rehearsals, the hard work, and the disruption to her normal life was only partly a love of ballet, she adds. "It was more that I love challenge," she says. 

"There's that tingly edginess that  makes you feel really alive. That's where it is for me when I'm out there doing something I'm not really sure I can pull off."

 Kessler at a rehearsal. Image: Cliff Coles

Published on: Dec 16, 2015