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Jean Case: How to get out of your comfort zone and into the "courage zone"

The chair of the National Geographic Society talks to Know Your Value about the importance of risk taking and elevating your career to the next level.
The chair of the National Geographic Society Jean Case.
The chair of the National Geographic Society Jean Case. Courtesy Sunshine Sachs

As a philanthropist, investor, tech pioneer, CEO and first female chair of the National Geographic Society, Case knows a few things about being extraordinary.

But according to Case, who recently sat down with Know Your Value’s Daniela Pierre-Bravo, it’s really “ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”

In her new book, “Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose,” Case debunked the myth that a person must have some sort of special quality to change the world. Through her examination of the core characteristics that change makers, innovators and entrepreneurs possess, she articulated the five ways we can put our fears aside in order to make a difference in the world.

1. Make a big bet.

We often reach for goals that are well within our grasp, but it can be beneficial to set bigger, loftier goals. “It is more natural to want to make incremental change,” said Case. “Make a big bet just calls on that discipline of really thinking big and transformative.”

2. Be bold. Take risks.

“Nothing great comes from the comfort zone,” Case said. She urged women to dig deep and push into the “courage zone” instead. Treat risk-taking as R&D, or “trial and error.” She said you can “chunk down your big idea to small steps so that if you are taking those risks and you trip up or have a failure along the way, you can just course correct.”

3. Make failure matter.

We’re all going to fail at some point; it’s up to us to make that failure matter. According to Case, we should be “undaunted” by failure: “Use the moment and do the hard work of figuring out what failure can teach you to craft and shape and perfect your idea going forward,” she said.

4: Reach beyond your bubble.

Diverse teams “break through and do innovative things,” said Case. Early on in her career, she was one of the first women at AOL, and she is still too often the only female in the room. If you also find yourself in that situation, Case advised that you should “own it as a superpower.” If you are the only one like you in the room—which may not necessarily be related to gender—you can say, “I’m uniquely qualified to have a unique perspective.”

5: Let urgency conquer fear.

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” said Case. She noted that women can be hesitant to try things because they’re not confident they will be great at them. “For a lot of things we’ll do in life, 80 percent is really good enough to get it done,” she said. The brain only has a small window of time to make a decision, and if you hesitate, you may not act at all: “Don’t be frozen by the idea that perfection is something you have to achieve. I don’t see men carrying that same burden, and as a result, they don’t hesitate to go for a lot of things that we’ll overthink or overdo.”

Still feeling a bit fearful? Start by making a connection.

Mentors can be extraordinarily helpful in guiding our path. Case advised finding someone you admire and making a “bold ask.” Mentorship doesn’t have to be a formal process; it can be as simple as a text exchange or conversation over coffee. You shouldn’t feel nervous about approaching a mentor. After all, Case said that when people are asked if they’ll do something helpful, they rarely say no.

In addition to finding mentors, women should gather their cheering section. In her article in Forbes, For Women Only: The ABCs of Breaking Through, Case discussed the idea that women are fierce champions for someone or something they believe in—but they’re not always champions for themselves. She recommended convening your own “personal board” of people who know you really well: “let them be your champions to…cheer you on as you go into those hard moments in life and be there if you have some falls.

We should always remember that “fearlessness is not the lack of fear, lack of security, lack of hesitation,” said Case, “because we’re always going to have that creep in at one time or another in our journey through life. Fearlessness is the ability to look it in the eye and keep going.”