Measuring up

Bob Brody Essayist, LettersToMyKids.org
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A while back, Human Resources finally explained why I’d gone 16 years, three months, two weeks, five days, 17 hours and 33 minutes without getting promoted.

Your comfort zone is too small, HR said. Smallest we’ve ever seen. Six square inches — give or take, depending on the humidity. I’ve seen quarks larger than your comfort zone. You’re almost too phobic to live.

But how can you tell? I asked.

Magnetic resonance imaging, HR said. Our office installed closed-circuit MRIs last Tuesday to size up all our personnel. So if you still want to make senior vice president, you’ll have to super-size your comfort zone. You’ll need at least 200 square feet. It’s all right there in the company job description.

I’d always suspected my comfort zone to be of inadequate magnitude. I mean, I’m averse even to a hint of risk. Making decisions gives me whiplash, which is why I wear a seatbelt at my desk. Seeing my own shadow so threatens my sense of security that I carry a flashlight. I’m so uncomfortable in my own skin I once tried to crawl out of it. Geneticists should probably study my DNA.

Even so, the very next day, faced with this corporate challenge, I ventured into terra incognita. For starters, I let my Rolodex go completely unalphabetical. Then I left new e-mails in my in-box unanswered for as long as 15 minutes at a stretch. Then, in composing a memo to a client, I decided — altogether without warning, mind you — to switch fonts. Yes, I submitted the document in Arial rather than the customary New Times Roman, all without even bothering to justify this act of wanton spontaneity in the accompanying cover note. Oh, I was taking a walk on the wild side now.

In days to come, I felt emboldened to experiment further. My use of paper clips suddenly grew quite profligate. I presented a PowerPoint deck without a single glance at the slides on the screen. Giddy with success, I even spoke to Elaine, our CEO, in our third-floor kitchen. I’d never said a word to Elaine before. But I saw her getting a cup of coffee and the opportunity to broaden my boundaries seemed too good to pass up. How’s the coffee today? I quipped. Hot, she riposted. It worked out really well. I was letting my freak flag fly now, baby. Clearly, my daring knew no bounds.

In my next visit to HR, a new scan from the MRI revealed the big news. My comfort zone had grown to 220 square feet — again depending on atmospheric conditions. That afternoon, I again encountered Elaine in the kitchen. You seem different, she said. Did you get a haircut or maybe gastric bypass surgery? Probably just my new cologne, I averred with a coy chuckle.

As the new quarter kicked in, thanks in part to my newfound willingness to compile a spreadsheet with the spell checker feature turned off, I was at last promoted. No sooner did I gain this new title, though, than I began to dream of someday reaching the dizzying heights of executive vice president.

But then I decided no, better play it safe. I’d seen what could happen to colleagues with too much of a can-do spirit. I could press my luck and go too far and worse could come to worst. My comfort zone could wind up getting too big for my own good.

Bob Brody, an executive and essayist in New York City, blogs at letterstomykids.orgs. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.