Life’s most significant learning happens when we step out and step up

Dennis Sparks

I’ve always loved learning, and I can recall that sometime in my 40s I briefly feared that I would run out of worthwhile things to learn. Even trips to very large bookstores with thousands of books that I would never read didn’t assuage that feeling.

You may not be surprised when I tell you that I didn’t run out of things to learn.

Perhaps my most important learning over the past couple of decades has been about the process of learning itself—that when I give myself interesting and compelling problems to solve, significant and even life-changing learning follows.

The most common source of such learning is when I walk, metaphorically speaking, to the edge of my comfort zone and then take another step or two. That meant both stepping out and stepping up to new responsibilities.

As I look back, I can see that significant learning occurred when I:

• Accepted a professional responsibility that was beyond my current capacities to successfully fulfill it. That happened, for instance, in the 1970s when I was asked to help plan and implement a public alternative high school. It happened again in the 1980s when I was invited to serve on NSDC’s Board of Trustees and later became its executive director.

• Felt strongly about the value of something and no one else was willing or able to take responsibility for the work. That happened a few years back when I thought it was important for hospice patients to have the opportunity, if they wished, to leave a video record of their life stories for family members, some of whom who were not yet born and would never have the chance to know them in person.

Question: What were circumstances that caused you to step out of your comfort zone, and what were the benefits that you and others experienced when you did so?

4 Responses to “Life’s most significant learning happens when we step out and step up”


  1. 1 Karen January 23, 2013 at 9:22 am

    I’m also thinking that “stepping into” fits well here. Stepping into the unknown requires courage and yields a potentially huge payoff. When I “stepped into” coaching it transformed my life and my work.

  2. 3 Mike Phillips January 24, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    I stepped out of my comfort zone after someone “tapped me on the shoulder.” Both self selection and “tapping a shoulder” have their place in supporting leaders to step forward and out of my comfort zones.

    The person didn’t stop with the tap. They continue to support my learning and experience as a leader. She gives me the gift of time and mentorship while I take on new roles and experiences, continuing to help me grow as a leader.

  3. 4 Dennis Sparks January 25, 2013 at 6:29 am

    An excellent addition to this post, Mike. I, too, was tapped on the shoulder and then supported by people who believed in my capacity to take on new responsibilities. Thanks for reminding us of the important role that others have played in our lives and that we in turn can play in the lives of those we sponsor and mentor.


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