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Outside the Comfort Zone

A letter from the founding editors.

How’s this for an operating definition of outside-the-box thinking? You have the most to learn from people who are least like you. It’s an easy enough idea to understand, but an exceptionally hard one to act on. A career counselor who was interviewed for an article in this issue put it well: “We all have comfort zones several sizes too small.”

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So take this issue of Fast Company as our attempt to expand your comfort zone. Our aim is to introduce you to new people, new ideas, and new practices – and to point out the benefits of getting a look at the world outside your usual world of work. If we’re right, the hybrid waiting to be created – a blend of your view and their alternative approaches – is better than what either side could produce on its own.

Take the message in our cover story, Stop the Fight! Listen to the talk inside of most companies today, and you’ll hear the sounds of two generations brawling: twentysomethings and fortysomethings are looking at each other with distrust, disregard, and even dislike. To the twentysomethings, the fortysomethings are pathetically uncool. To the fortysomethings, the twentysomethings are frustratingly inexperienced. It’s the kind of conflict that can stunt an organization’s growth – or even tear it apart.

But listen carefully, and you’ll hear another sound out there: The fight is over! In some companies, the twenty-somethings and fortysomethings are bridging the generation gap to create a best-of-both-worlds hybrid. That hybrid blends one generation’s experience and another generation’s energy. Ultimately, all we are saying is, Give peace a chance!

You can read about a company that offers an example of the power of hybrid thinking in Roberts Rules the Road. Roberts Express Inc. is a fast company in a slow industry – a state-of-the-art trucking company that is as much in the information business as it is in the transportation business. Roberts Express has a passion for customer service – it has to, with customers like NASA depending on it to deliver sensitive cargo needed for Senator John Glenn’s return to space! But what Roberts Express really shows you is the way talent and technology cut across every industry and every job to reinvent the way we all work.

Want more evidence that the world has gone hybrid? In genius at work, you’ll meet Bill Strickland, president and CEO of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center – two programs in Pittsburgh that are reinventing how we think about social change and urban revitalization. Think of Strickland’s work as “social entrepreneurship” – even the term is a hybrid, blending the worlds of philanthropy and activism with the worlds of capitalism and economic growth. And that’s precisely the approach that Bill Strickland is pioneering, coupling the artistry of a trained potter with the instincts of a natural deal-maker to save lives, build community, and produce change.

Finally, if you’re looking for one last example of how much we all can learn from those least like ourselves, check out Women’s Ways of Mentoring. Mentoring is, of course, an old subject – which is exactly the point. The way mentoring was practiced in the past ignored the rule of hybrid thinking. In fact, it tended to assume the opposite: The person who can teach you the most is someone most like you – except they’re a few years older and a few rungs higher up in the company. Women have brought a new look to the world of mentoring – call it “wo-mentoring” – and one of the first new rules is, the best match is a mismatch.

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So, we hope you’ll use this issue to make some mismatches of your own – to apply ideas and practices from outside your comfort zone to problems in your work and life.