Psychologists rank openness to new experiences as one of the five major personality traits along with extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Most of us are reluctant to try new things. We fall into patterns of behavior or habits that become very comfortable. Habits form a large part of our regular behavior. As a simple example, when is the last time you ordered something different at your favorite restaurant? I have to admit that I am one of those people that gains comfort from having the same meal each time since I know what to expect from preparation, taste, and experience. There are numerous other habits that make up our daily lives: work routines, conversations, types of entertainment, exercise routines, and even routes for driving.
Habits offer great comfort because their key elements are known. For most people, deviating from what is known is not only challenging, but frightening. Research has shown that we fear the unknown more than even negative things we are familiar with since we are uncertain of the outcome (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796798000850). However, we all have to face the unknown if we want to grow. New experiences are important for our personal and professional development. The brain activity associated with new experiences can make you smarter, more energetic, more creative, and more sociable. Moreover, it helps counter our innate fear of the unknown by establishing a pattern of success we can draw on in the future.
Some might argue that very early on or even through genetic transmission we develop a sense of acceptance of new experiences. According to longitudinal studies conducted by Richard Robins of University of California, Davis, “Children who are less open to new experiences than their peers are will continue in adulthood to cleave to the conventional more than their more adventurous childhood friends will.” Even if experiential acceptance is not limited by our childhood, by the time we are adults, we all possess internal filters that prevent us from embracing new experiences easily.
In the workplace, it is critical that we are willing to accept change and take on new assignments. As the internal and external environment changes, roles and responsibilities evolve for most employees. Although most employees praise their employer’s willingness to expose them to new things, actual behavior is different. Most employees opt for the “same meal” each day and attempt to reduce risk. We like to stay in our comfort zone.
So, how can we better prepare for being more open to new experiences?
- Develop an action plan for what you want to learn this year even if your employer does not require it
- When you feel comfortable in a situation, ask if you are missing other opportunities
- Look for specific opportunities for new experiences by volunteering to participate in new initiatives or projects
- Ask for stretch goals that will require learning something new and then applying the new knowledge