Comfort is like a post on Snapchat. It doesn’t last.
At best, comfort is a rest-stop. An oasis in the storm. A place where we can regenerate ourselves so that we can go about the fun and invigorating part of life – which is outside what is commonly called “the comfort zone”.
At worst, it’s quicksand. And it will pull you under before you have a chance to explore what else is out there in this world.
The funny thing is, as you may have noticed in your own life, your comfort zone is actually not very comfortable at all. It’s not restful or safe. You grow edgy. You grow hungry. You grow bored with yourself. You can sense life rushing by out there, full of sound and glory, while you are – temporarily –treading warm, sleepy water (or quicksand).
The legendary comfort zone is not comfortable; it is merely familiar. It’s a familiarity zone.
And you know what familiarity breeds…
In this case, contempt for your own sloth or stagnation. If, as Neale Donald Walsch opined, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”, then you can begin to see your comfort zone as a kind of realm of death.
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It is certainly the death of creativity. As the preternaturally talented Taylor Swift observed of a role model of hers, “One element of Madonna’s career… is how many times she’s reinvented herself. It’s easier to stay in one look, one comfort zone, and one musical style. It’s inspiring to see someone whose only predictable quality is being unpredictable.”
Chris Rock sees the same danger for comedians, the worst of whom “tend to find a comfort zone and stay there and do lamer versions of themselves for the rest of their career”.
You’re reading this here now because you have no interest in doing a “lamer version” of yourself for the rest of your life.
You want to bust out of your comfort (fear, death) zone because you know out there is where the juice of life is waiting for you.
And you probably also know that simple words of motivation don’t have the firepower to boost your confidence and get you there. Fortunately, research has shown specific and actionable techniques that can lift you out of the mind-numbing gravity of comfort.
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Before we review the best of those, let’s start by dissolving some myths…
The first one, as we already saw, is to recognize that your comfort zone is really just a familiar zone. It’s unsettling to be there. What it is, is merely “the devil you know”.
Second, wallowing in your comfort zone is not really a conscious choice. It is a dead-zone ruled by automatic, unconscious habit rather than choice. It’s not something the “you” who dreams is choosing, but rather the “you” of habits and patterns that your subconscious mind believes will minimize stress or danger.
Third, it’s not really a “zone” at all. “It” doesn’t exist. The stagnation you may be feeling has no spatial location. It is merely a moment in time shaped by the choices you are making right now.
This should encourage you. You don’t need to go anywhere dramatic or buy some kind of magical pogo-stick to move into the juice of life; you only need to make new choices. Starting now.
Fourth, the comfort zone is not “bad” by definition. As psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson showed, a state of relative comfort creates reliable and stable performance. That can be useful if you need to get a repetitive job done. The downside of course of being “comfortably numb” as Pink Floyd put it so well, is that you live a half-lived and zestless life.
In order to maximize performance, by contrast, we need “eustress” – or “good stress” – the state of relative anxiety just barely but decisively outside our comfort zone.
If we protect ourselves too much from anxiety, we stagnate in life and die inside. If we experience too much anxiety on the other hand, we don’t perform well. We panic. We freeze. We collapse.
Thus, in order to optimize your success without triggering failure, try these techniques to put you in your most effective state of engaged high-performance – just outside the protective fences you’ve unconsciously erected to “protect” your safe sense of the familiar…
1. Tweak Your Habits
Habits are like a heavy fog that will engulf you. You blow holes in that fog by doing things a little differently. Drive or walk a slightly different route to work. Eat somewhere new. Buy strange Asian vegetables and try to figure out what to do with them. Wake up new neurons. It’s contagious in there.
2. Track and Slay a (Little) Dragon
Find your fear and do it anyway. If the post-Jaws ocean scares you, sign up for surfing lessons. If flying scares you, book a flight some place that delights you (and bring your funniest, best friends with you). If learning new tech scares you, sign up on Lynda.com and learn as many as you can for the monthly fee of maybe 25 bucks. If reaching out to a role-model scares you –study how to write a good email and write them anyway. If going up to a girl at a bar and saying hello scares you, make a commitment to say hi to 20 in a night – and bring a friend to keep you accountable. Pick a fear. Walk into it. Walk out knowing in your body that the fears are not fences hemming you in. They are doorways into new self-understanding, expansion and experience.
3. Pull What Parents Pull
Remember when you wanted something from your parents and you got the answer, “I’ll think about it”? They were probably delaying a “no” but what they were doing was buying time. People want quick answers from you for all kinds of commitments – and you probably often say yes when you would have preferred to say no. So buy some time. Make it a practice to not commit to a yes or no for 24 hours. You might surprise yourself – and lose some friends you don’t want anyway.
4. Release Expectation
For many years, I have taught men dating skills. So many of them feared simply walking up to a woman to start a conversation and the reason was that they felt if they didn’t get her number or a kiss or more, then their efforts were for naught. They felt like failures.
By contrast, I taught them to approach anyone anytime with no expectation but to create a great experience for the woman, and to expect nothing in response. That magic combination liberated them, and approaching new women became natural and effortless.
Step out of your comfort zone habits by dropping all expectation and simply enjoy your actions for their own sake.
5. Be Irresponsibly Committal
Twice in my life, I made huge commitments on the spur of the moment. And both times it paid off. Once, I agreed to travel to the Amazon to do a wildly transformative shamanic ritual deep in the jungle without knowing anything about it. Changed my life. The other time I went to an Internet marketing conference without knowing exactly what that was, but I sensed the future was there. What I learned there launched my entire next career. Now, don’t get married on a whim, or take up wingsuit flying without practice. Or a wingsuit. But get in the practice of taking risks solely for the sake of discovery.
6. Travel Somewhere New
If you grew up on an island where everybody worshipped starfish, you would think all people everywhere worshipped starfish. Well, in many ways, that is how you grew up, minus the starfish-worship.
Almost everything you believe is universal – processed, nutrition-less foods, couples raising children without daily extended family support and involvement, Republicans who deny global warming – is likely to be an oddity globally speaking.
But you’d never know that if you stayed at home, or tuned in to the same old cable news channel for dummies.
Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
So… vegetate elsewhere.
Trekking the Himalaya and witnessing the pink light of dawn on an 18,000-foot wall of snow will give you an appreciation for how little you need to possess in order to buzz with the thrill of being alive. And you’ll learn what Yak milk tastes like, for what that’s worth.
In Peru you’ll discover they eat guinea pigs like chicken. In parts of China and other countries of course, it’s Snoopy. Some cultures welcome death as a daily icon. Others worship fierce goddesses.
As the post-WWI song asked, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm/After they’ve seen Paree’?”
All your cultural assumptions are up for grabs when you get off your kiester and experience the world as others do. And what you’ll find is that so many your self-limiting assumptions of what you are or what you can be or what experiences are possible for you gently vanish as you challenge yourselves in new environments. You become tougher. More resourceful. Negativity turns into positivity. I’ve eaten fried scorpions in Beijing alleyways. Slept in rural traffic circles when cars stopped coming along out in the vast Dutch flats. Drank snake whiskey in Peru. So you won’t find me complaining my fries are overdone at the local diner.
7. Update Your Motivations
In the old days you had a farm. Or a job. Or a corporate career. Now, you are likely to have 6 or more careers over a lifetime.
And marriage? Well, good luck. You might get married and stay married. The stats are only partly in your favor.
In other words, your life will jump forward in sudden and unexpected ways. Often. What motivated you at 20 when you chose your first career or partner probably will not motivate you when you are 25 or 30 or 40 or 50 (1).
We lurch through cycles of life and all too often, our thought habits trail behind. It takes fierce self-honesty to re-assess what makes you happy, what satisfies you, what makes you excited to get up in the morning (2).
And even more courage to readjust your life to unfold in accordance with your new thoughts and feelings.
8. Mitigate Risk
It’s romantic to consider grand novel new gestures. And, sometimes, it’s gratifying. But risk-taking is a muscle. So before you sell your clothes to open a storefront, steamroller over your fear and stagnation by taking small steps and protect your downside.
On the entrepreneurial front, don’t quit your day job until your new business is on its feet. For relationships, allow yourselves to ease into commitment and integrating your life, one phase at a time.
Breaking out of your familiar zones creates feedback loops, where success feeds more courage, which feeds more boldness and success (3).
Richard Branson has launched dozens of businesses – some wildly successful (Virgin Mobile, Virgin America) and some catastrophic failures. He makes a great point about guarding against your downside in his book, Business Stripped Bare…
“You can’t protect yourself against the unexpected, so you need to keep your house in as good an order as you can. If disaster strikes, you don’t want to find yourself doing twelve things at once and mis-prioritizing them in public. It’s vital, therefore, that you take control of your internal business risks, the ones you can influence.”
9. Refresh Your Eyes
Years ago, I wrote a film for bmw on the artistry of auto design. One of the happy surprises was my discovery that the company would budget time for its designers to visit art and textile shows, desert landscapes, even fine food and industrial design conferences – all with the intent to inspire them with new ways of looking at light and color and line.
Art and design wake us up. As Oscar Wilde said, Discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.
The comfort zone is a place of routine and dulled eyes. You can refuel your perspectives, your contexts, your excitement and delight in the world by allowing great artists or designers to expand and re-jigger your imagination. Take a day to tour art galleries. Hit the museums. And then make it yours by taking your own art classes.
When I travel, I bring charcoals or colored pencils or acrylics and I set myself and draw or paint cathedrals or castles or vistas. Sitting in courtyards in Jerusalem, Florence and Cambridge, I found it was the best way to really get to intimately know buildings and countries.
Draw and paint. The visual arts wake up your eyes. Read great poets and write creatively. Poetry wakes up your linguistic creativity. Dance wakes up your body and your natural joy.
The arts are fuel for your imagination. And an imagination on fire has the natural energy to venture into new realms. The worst thing that can happen when you try something new?
You might fail.
But you’ll be wiser.
You’ll have the experience of having taken a courageous leap, and each leap grows easier in time. And your life will transform into an ongoing adventure of discovery and innovation.
Most of the greatest lessons in life are learned by taking risks and living outside of your comfort zone.
Come on out. The world is ready.
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The Best Ways To Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
- Tweak your habits
- Track and slay a (little) dragon
- Pull what parents pull
- Release expectation
- Be irresponsibly committal
- Travel somewhere new
- Update your motivations
- Mitigate risk
- Refresh your eyes