Go beyond what makes you comfortable. Open yourself to ideas, events, relationships that make you uncomfortable. Travel places where you know no one. Learn another language. Create art, even though you’re not an artist. Argue with people. Fall down. Get up. Read books, all sorts of books.
— Juan Williams of NPR during his commencement speech at Whitman College
I was paging through an article of commencement speech clips over breakfast yesterday morning and this quote stuck with me all day. It recalls so many recent conversations and its message resonates on so many levels. But doing something that makes you uncomfortable — doesn’t that sound odd?
During this visit home, we’ve been asked repeatedly, “How do you do what you do? How do you get your stories? How did you get that photo?” Although there’s no foolproof recipe, regularly challenging our fears and doing things we once thought uncomfortable both play a big role.
So my first thought upon absorbing this quote was, “We do this. This is us. We live so much of our life outside the comfort zone.”
Then I stepped back and wondered, “Do we really?” After all, going outside our comfort zone is not about going to a place but rather embarking on a journey that involves continually challenging our assumptions and expanding the boundaries of what feels comfortable to us.
When I considered this, I wondered some more: “Maybe we don’t do this enough. Or perhaps we need to do it differently.”
As we explore and expand our boundaries, here are some thoughts regarding comfort zones — and how to get outside of them.
1) Acknowledge Your Fears
At the root of all hesitation to change, fear.
Fears are natural. They are also rooted in basic physical and emotional needs. That often makes them easy to overlook, easy to dismiss.
Acknowledge and understand your fears one by one before taking steps to address them — don’t tackle them all at once. If you don’t acknowledge your fears it will be difficult to recognize and characterize your success once you’ve overcome them.
As much as we’ve had experience with public speaking and presentations, we have become comfortable with “speaking” primarily through our website. Believe it or not, we have fears of standing up in front of an audience — particularly when we’re out of practice. So recently, we began doing presentations and school talks as part of our visit home. It got us out from behind the computer screen — and it forced us to face up to one of our fears.
2) Take Emotional Risks
We are often asked what has been the most frightening thing we’ve done or faced along our journey. No, it’s not almost getting trampled at the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan nor is it getting lost in the mountains or any of the various “adventurous” things that have happened to us on the road. It’s the stuff whose arc of uncertainty spans not moments, but lifetimes.
It’s handing in our resignation letters in November 2006. We had all the trappings of safety and comfort back then – good pay, great health insurance (probably the best we’ll see in our lives), nice benefits, etc. But we weren’t learning and growing in the ways we wanted. It took a mini midlife crisis for me to understand how high a priority continual learning was in my life (actually, in both of our lives). Ironically, it was a coach hired by my employer as part of management training who really helped me see clearly that I needed a radical change.
I sometimes wonder what my life would look like today if I had never handed in that resignation letter. I suppose it would be good in terms of physical and financial comfort. But would I swap that comfort for what I’ve learned and experienced these last three and a half years?
Not at all. I won’t wax long about the reasons, but if you’ve followed our website or have seen us at one of our recent presentations, you’ll probably understand why.
3) Check Routines, Chuck Some
There’s value in routine. But like anything valuable, routines ought to be subject to occasional evaluation.
Routines show up in the strangest of circumstances. Even our current existence is subject to routines — and ruts. This observation may surprise people given that so much of our lives is about hopping chicken buses, immersing ourselves in markets and new cuisines, talking with random people on the street, and conversing in foreign languages — all activities that smack of spontaneity.
But anything you do over and over again can and does become routine after a while.
At that point, it’s time to actively consider your routines and whether or not they need to be swapped for something different.
4) Expand the Boundaries of Comfort
Expand the collection of life experiences with which you are comfortable.
Our boundaries now are different than when we had our desk jobs. What was uncomfortable yesterday becomes comfortable today. The task remains always: continual growth and creation of another set of opportunities to pursue productive discomfort.
The next new geographic area for us to tackle: Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, we are adjusting our personal and professional goals. Amidst all the exciting possibilities, I understand there will be times when we’ll want to crawl back into our comfort zone and just do what we’ve done before.
5) Don’t Play Trading Places
People often tell us that they are jealous of our lives, that they wish they could do what we’re doing. No less so when we are on American soil.
In response, we joke: “Are you really sure about that?” Even without the nasty, bedbug ridden hostels and restrictive budget, we spend so much of our lives outside our comfort zone. We take so many personal and professional risks that enable us to do what we do. Arguably our only safety net: ourselves and our wit.
This isn’t for everyone.
Don’t wish you had someone’s else’s life. Find out what it is that you admire and value in that person’s life. Focus on one aspect and try to be that way in yours. Let your choices and actions reflect your values. In other words: live deliberately.
6) Think: What’s the Worst That Can Happen?
If you are staring down a fear and you know the risk you need to take to face it, ask yourself: “What’s the worst that can happen?” When you consider the worst case scenario, you may just realize that the consequences of failure really aren’t that bad.
When considering our life choices over the last four years, one friend recently asked: “But really, what did you have to lose?”
7) Fire Up Your Curiosity
So you are jazzed about jumping outside of your comfort zone, but you are only seeing the same old stuff? How to find more pockets of productive discomfort?
Our advice: light the fires of curiosity. If you allow your curiosity to guide you, you will always find something new…even in your own backyard. And chances are you will never be bored.
Finally, a word about doing something different. Some people will love you for it. Others will be threatened by what you do, for it challenges their assumptions and the choices they’ve made.
“You know, what you guys are doing makes some people really uncomfortable.” — We have heard this repeatedly, particularly over the last couple of weeks.
But others’ discomfort is not yours to manage.
As you are doing all this, celebrate the victories and take stock in the confidence and new skills you are building. Keep moving forward. When you do, you’ll be wondering what it was that made you uncomfortable in the first place.
What about you? What will you do today that goes beyond your comfort zone?