When you’re little, everything you do, and see, and hear, is new. You’re learning every minute of every day. You’re falling and failing but then you get right back up and try again. You’re growing physically, mentally and emotionally.
But as you get older, something happens. You start to get comfortable. You avoid doing things that are unfamiliar and you stick with things you know. You stop learning. You settle into a routine and you start to live on autopilot.
Little you was endlessly curious. Always asking questions, always wanting to know “why?” and “how?” and “what if?” As you go through school, however, you’re taught to look for the right answers, to stay within the lines and to follow an expected path.
So you do as you are told. You get the good grades. You go to a good university, and maybe another good university, and then you get a good job. You even have a good time while doing it! But, without really realising it, you’re gradually settling into that comfort zone.
What’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone?
There are plenty of benefits that come with living within your comfort zone. You feel safe and secure, you’re confident and in control. Stress and anxiety are minimal as you’ve already mastered the problems that exist in this world, you know what’s coming next and you have rules and habits in place to deal with everything.
But there’s another side to this comfort. A side where you experience stagnation, frustration, and a feeling of being stuck as your comfort zone inevitably shrinks around you. You offload the responsibility onto others as you blame your parents for bringing you up in a certain way, your teachers and the education system for conditioning you to follow a particular path, and then house prices and mortgages and living costs in this expensive city… Anyone and everyone but you is responsible for why you are where you are today. It’s incredibly disempowering as you relinquish the power to do anything to change your situation.
In my case, I moved to Geneva for a two-year masters degree in international development and “ended up” accepting a two-year assignment in a private corporation. Then I stayed another two years, and another two years.
At a personal level, I had my (amazing) friends and didn’t make much of an effort to make new ones. We’d go out to our favourite bars, clubs and restaurants. And then those (still amazing) friends married, moved out to the suburbs, and had two children (clearly, I’d missed the memo).
In career terms, I did well at work and got promoted. All the while, I would proclaim to anyone who would listen that, “I studied International Relations, I really want to work at the UN, I only took this job as a temporary thing.” And then I’d do nothing to actively move into that career that I was allegedly so set on.
I told people I wanted to be a writer but I never wrote anything.
I said I wanted to travel to South America – “adventure is out there!” – but never booked the ticket.
I was stuck.
So why do we stay?
Although it feels real, the ‘comfort zone’ is an artificial construct, a mental concept that has no physical manifestation in the real world: it’s a boundary you’ve created that exists only in your own mind.
You’re afraid of failure, of making mistakes, of looking foolish; you worry about what other people might think or say; you think you’re not good enough, or you think you’re so good that you have to stay in this prestigious job and keep progressing in the company. You may be overwhelmed by all the options, unsure of where to start. You may simply be lazy.
On the other hand, it may be the very possibility of success that you’re afraid of, your power to change your life and the accountability that comes with this. You may be avoiding that responsibility by procrastinating, putting off action until tomorrow while telling yourself, and others, “Yes, but…”, “First I need to…”, “I’ll do it when…”
What happens when you step outside?
They say that outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens. When you push the boundaries of what you feel is comfortable and challenge yourself to try new things, when you go on an adventure, when you explore and experiment and, yes, take a bit of a risk – that’s when you learn and grow and, ultimately, you achieve your deepest, darkest desires.
You know, those things that you *wish* you could do, that you dream about, that you maybe even talk about? But. You’re not the entrepreneurial type, you could never travel on your own, you need the security of a full-time job. Maybe when you’re older. First, you need to save $$$ for your pension. You’ll do it when your kids are older.
The impossible dreams.
Getting out of your comfort zone is where those dreams can become goals and those goals can become your reality.
Focusing on growth rather than comfort is empowering. It will give you a more positive outlook as even the worst situations offer opportunities to grow; it gets you focused on the present, as every new situation is a fresh opportunity and your past doesn’t have to determine your future; and it involves taking responsibility for your own experience, creating the life you want with each opportunity that you grasp.
How do you get outside your comfort zone?
You’re probably waiting for the right moment to arrive (it never will) or for motivation to flood your veins (it won’t). You’re still putting the responsibility for changing your life on someone else’s shoulders, even if that someone is Father Time or Lady Luck.
The truth is that motivation doesn’t come before action, you’ve got that backwards. In fact, action creates motivation.
When you act, you are, by definition, getting yourself unstuck. When you act, you’re building your own confidence in your ability to do something. And when you act, you’re creating momentum and setting off a chain of events that will lead to all sorts of things that you could never have foreseen.
Your action doesn’t have to be – and probably shouldn’t be – a huge leap. Pushing yourself too far may mean that you overshoot the growth zone and go flying into the panic zone that lies outside. Too much risk, too soon, will have you feeling out of control and you won’t be able to reap all those benefits that you’re looking for.
And moving forward doesn’t have to mean that you’re losing all those things that have given you comfort, that you love and value: you can bring all that with you, while you let go of the other things that no longer serve you.
With each step outside your comfort zone, as you realise that you not only survive but you actually thrive out there, you are reassured. And the next step will be easier, as your comfort zone expands along with your actions.
After all, if you think about it, everything that is now within your comfort zone was once an impossible dream as well.
Over to you: taking your one step
So what one step will you to take to move tentatively out of your comfort zone? What are you going to do to take ownership of your own choices and get yourself definitively unstuck?
Even a teeny tiny step can be enough to give you a new perspective, to get you meeting new people, and to build your confidence so that you can do something a little bigger next time.
Oh, and me? I went to South America. I wrote a book. And, well, who knows what impossible dream is next!