Reach For Your Panic Zone: A Conversation with Experience Institute Founder Victor Saad

Ask someone who they are, and they’ll tell you what they do. When people’s identities are inextricably linked to their profession or social roles, what happens when a pandemic sweeps the country, leaving a wake of unemployment and a diminished sense of collective purpose? Panic. We’ve heard it before, “life isn’t fair,” or worse, “that’s just part of life.” These two phrases aren’t false, but they’re disempowering and sometimes downright patronizing.

A more accurate truth is “life is full of experiences” — tragedy, triumph, and plot twists — that inform the stories we write. There will always be critics, but we are the authors of our lives. An undeniable theme to our collective stories is the desire to belong. Yearning is most potent and pervasive in what Brene Brown calls “Act II” of a three-part story. No one gets to the final act without enduring growing pains.

Growing pains are the figurative stretch marks of our character. We struggle. We grow. We learn. We grow into belonging. Leave it to Victor Saad to make it simple: “More experience helps people find their place.” In a new era where the average person changes careers a dozen times, Victor Saad helps people find belonging while navigating transition points. Victor is an author, educator, community builder, and founder of Experience Institute (EI). EI helps college students and career professionals learn in the real-world. We sat down with Victor to unpack how he inspires people and institutions to reimagine education through experience.

The world is moving fast, and traditional education is falling behind. Instead of “pointing the middle finger,” EI partners with universities to leverage the best aspects of existing systems while introducing new approaches to common problems. For example, a massive obstacle for many is the cost of education. Victor surmounted that challenge by opting to create his own Master’s program to explore the intersection between business, design, and social impact. He called it The Leap Year Project.

In 2012, Victor traveled the globe to work with twelve companies for twelve months. He staged graduation at a local TEDx and published a book of individuals’ stories illuminating the power of learning through risk. A year later, Victor joined the ranks of higher education when he was inducted into Forbes 30 Under 30 in the field of education. Today, along with EI, he is a Lecturer in Design at Stanford’s School of Engineering. From personal experience and witnessing others move through growth stages, Victor discovered a hack to development: risk-taking.

Everyone has three zones: their comfort zone, their learning zone, and their panic zone. Most of us are courageous often enough to feel the pleasant unease of moving from the comfort zone to the learning zone. It’s like walking a balance beam; you’re nervous but can see the mat below. Soft landings aren’t always guaranteed. The EI team believes that “if you can get to the edge of that panic zone — where you think ‘I can’t handle this experience. I feel lost.’ — and you stay there long enough to work through that moment, that’s transformational.” Victor equates this theory to the moment a rock climber makes the reach after multiple attempts and bruises. Euphoria.

Over time routes that were once difficult become easy. The larger goal is to expand your comfort zone continuously. The challenge is to build confidence in the face of despair; the reward is never to be complacent once that challenge is met. “Grit and gumption can lead to pretty amazing opportunities if you let them,” says Victor.

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