Personal Development Zones – The Roles and Limits of Rest & Stressors

Roger Bannister Four Minute Mile

In order for muscles to grow, they need to be put under repeated stress to the point that they tear. After muscles tear, with proper nourishment and rest, they repair stronger than before. The frequency by which they’re put under weight determines the level of strength the muscles can eventually bear.

Like our bodies, our minds and character are antifragile (a term coined by Nassim Taleb) which means that when put under stress, they grow stronger. Contrast things that are antifragile to those which are fragile or robust. Fragile things, like glass mugs, break under stress. Robust things, like the mythical Phoenix, neither benefit nor are they destroyed from fire. Antifragile things, like the mythical Hydra, benefit from conflict. Friedrich Nietzsche argued that people are antifragile when he wrote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

There’s a lot of truth to what Taleb and Nietzsche teach us about the role stressors play in human development and there are limits to how severe stressors can be before they go from being antifragile to fragile. Going back to the muscle analogy, in order for weight to build muscle, it needs to push a person beyond what they’re comfortable bearing but too much weight or frequency can be destructive. Torn connective tissue, broken or dislocated bones, heat exhaustion, brain aneurysms or other physical harm can result from over-exertion.

Just as there many who still believe “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, there’s an increasing trend to accept the debilitating philosophy that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”. It’s this mentality that, according to authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, is leading to a culture that is becoming increasingly unable to bear the struggles that life inevitably brings. Higher rates of depression and suicide are evidence of an overprotective culture, according to Lukianoff and Haidt. The notions of “Safe Spaces”, “Trigger Warnings” and “Microaggressions” are a few examples of the level of protectionism that the rising generation are embracing from well-intentioned “intellectuals”. In their co-written book, Coddling of the American Mind, they point out:

“A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”

In addition:

“Parenting strategies and laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from ‘figure out how to solve this conflict on your own’ to ‘invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises’.”

They also observed that overprotective parenting and teaching “come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment.”

Various mental models, such as Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, have been created that can help us understand the role that stressors and limits can play in our development. The following diagram serves as a way to visualize the roles and limits that rest and stressors play in our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual personal development.

Personal Development Zones

Each of us have our own comfort zone – the level to which we feel familiar, comfortable and relaxed with certain things. Rest and healing happen here but growth does not. Each of us have a growth zone – the level to which we are able to bare particular stressors – whether it’s handling a difficult task at work, learning a new subject, public speaking, dealing with loss or anything else that stretches us beyond our comfort zone. This zone is where we grow. Each of us also have a destructive zone – the level to which stressors are causing more harm than we can bare or sustainably endure. Each of us are different and will therefore have varying limits within our comfort and growth zones.

To the person experiencing hardship now, the destructive zone appears much closer than it usually is. Much like the weight-lifter who doesn’t think they can lift another rep, their physical limit is usually beyond what their mind is telling them it is. Humanity’s ability to run a four-minute mile, previously a perceived impossibility, became an exponential recurrence once Roger Bannister did it 1954. To the person who sees their trials with the benefit of hindsight, the destructive zone can usually be clearly seen to be beyond what they thought it was when they were experiencing it.

Analyzing how children learn how to read provides another example for how the personal development zones are applicable. Reading comprehension expands as children read just beyond (growth zone) what their current reading level (comfort zone) is. Introducing a child to reading material that is too advanced (destructive zone) can backfire and cause the child to be discouraged, not learn or give up. Academically, these zones are referred to as the independent, guided and frustration reading levels.

Perspective plays a major role in which zone we’re in. After the devastating war had ended between the Lamanites and Nephites, in Alma 62 we learn that many of the Nephites were hardened by the weight and duration of their hardships. Had I been through their experience, I probably would have been too. Conversely, many were softened and humbled themselves before God. What made the difference between these two groups? Their experiences appear the same but their outcomes are opposites. Choice plays an essential role in how we come out on the other side of hardship. It’s not about how strong we, by ourselves, can be during trials. We are weak creatures. We need God for strength and healing. The difference comes by choosing to depend on God over ourselves for strength and endurance.

After nearly four months of being falsely imprisoned in Liberty Jail during the Missouri winter and with little food or means to stay warm, the Lord revealed to a discouraged Joseph Smith the expanse of the growth zone:

“If thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”

The distance between where our comfort zone ends and where the destructive zone begins is where growth happens. If we spend our whole life in the comfort zone, we’ll be weak, dependent, afraid and ignorant. We’ll atrophy physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. If we spend time in the destructive zone, we’ll be burnt out, bitter and broken. If we want to be better, stronger, happier and more fulfilled, we need to regularly stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones.

The comfort and growth zones have current limits but they’re also expandable over time. As our muscles tear under stress, with rest (comfort zone), they regenerate stronger and are able to withstand more weight later. Likewise, after our minds and spirits are stretched for certain weights and frequencies, and after time has been made for renewal, the degree to which our minds and spirits can withstand stressors increases. Growth requires strength and energy. Strength and energy require regular renewal. God rested after six days of labor. He created the Sabbath for our renewal, rest and benefit. Our mortal bodies are designed to require about a third of our day in an unconscious, restful state. The Earth goes through similar cycles annually as the seasons repeat the growth, rest and renewal stages. We can’t and shouldn’t constantly have our bow strings strung tight. All things must be done with wisdom, order and diligence but we should pace ourselves lest we run faster than we have strength.

To add to the long list of opposite periods of time that we encounter in life – To every thing there is a season – I’ll also add that there is a time for growth, and a time for renewal. The philosophy “go big or go home” is an enemy to progress. It’s unsustainable. It serves as the mantra for the newly energized zealot who is about to burn out. Or it’s the excuse of the person who doesn’t want to leave their comfort zone at all. Progress happens one step (and often failure) at a time when we frequent the growth zone.

The benefits that trials can provide were depicted eloquently when Chief Justice John Roberts broke the commencement-speech-norm at his son’s 9th grade graduation by, instead of well-wishing the graduates, he expressed the following:

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

Questions To Consider:

  • What are some hardships I’ve experienced that I can learn from?
  • How do I find the line between the growth zone and the destructive zone? What signals do I notice when I’m pushing myself too hard?
  • What signals do I notice when I’ve been in the comfort zone too long?
  • What areas of life do I need to scale back on?
  • What areas of life do I need to stretch myself in?
  • What are some ways that I can unwind?
  • What are my most dreaded fears that I have control over? Those fears are likely ones I can face.
  • Are there any reminders I can schedule to practice leaving my comfort zone?
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