Comfort zone: Are you in or out?
Who does self help help?
A recent post on LinkedIn decried the notion of getting out of one’s comfort zone, suggesting that it was an underlying source of unhappiness and that we shouldn’t fall for this lifestyle con trick. I don’t know for sure, but I guess the author was taking aim at the very lucrative self-help industry.
As someone who spends quite a bit of time outside my comfort zone, my initial reaction was measured abhorrence. This emotional response was most likely triggered by a related post I had recently written.
Nonetheless it’s an important issue and whether you agree or not sets you on a lifestyle path that you may or may not regret in your final moments. So I thought I would give it some consideration.
Let’s look at the case for staying in the comfort zone:
Don’t worry, be happy!
Life is short and so why spend it being unhappy?
Greasing the groove
Ironically for me, this topic came up at the exact moment I was researching the web looking for ways to improve my skills without the constant soreness, I seem to carry around with me. I came across the concept of ‘greasing the groove’. Conceived by a former Russian Spetsnaz Instructor, it advocates always staying within your comfort zone because strength improvement comes about through developing the neural pathways, rather than bashing out reps to exhaustion. This had my attention. Specifically it offered a way to develop strength endurance without having to endure pain. Though whether it will help you lift heavier or get ‘henched’ is still being explored.
I need to concentrate
One of the respondents highlighted that he does his best work when he is in his comfort zone. How can you do your best work unless you are feeling comfortable? It’s a good point.
At the sharp end, children are unlikely to learn at school if the backdrop to their lives is fear and malnutrition.
This of course applies to everyone. The finer the skill being learnt the more distraction hinders the learning process.
Let’s look at the case against remaining in your comfort zone:
Keeping it real
The need to concentrate is important, but the need to pressure test your skills is critical. That is perhaps why black belt martial artists don’t always perform well against belt-free street fighters.
Necessity is the mother of invention
If our ancestors had not stepped out of their comfort zones, we wouldn’t enjoy the technological advances and relative safety that we perhaps take for granted today. In fact, if our ancestors had not adapted (ie constantly learnt) under what were the harshest of conditions, we would not be here today.
Man’s search for meaning
According to holocaust survivor and neurologist Victor Frankl, our goal should not be happiness, but a search for meaning, or life purpose. Happiness is a by-product. American psychologist, Martin Seligman breaks happiness up into:
- The pleasant life (pleasure).
- The engaged life (flow).
- The meaningful life (purpose), which he refers to as Authentic Happiness.
Admittedly neither of these perspectives suggest that stepping outside one’s comfort zone is needed.
In any case, there is nothing wrong with pleasure. Our body serves it up as dopamine pellets.
So hedonism is one way forward. But perhaps as a corollary of greasing the groove, the pleasures will need to increase in intensity if we are to keep receiving the pellet. This is likely to take us down a dark path.
Look, no hands!
Hedonism isn’t our default mode. Babies could just lie there and enjoy the pleasure of milk on demand (think the film Wall-e). But they are naturally curious and so they invariably start to explore (crawl) at the first opportunity. They put their fingers into things they shouldn’t. Such is our desire to be curious. They note there is a better way, so they endeavour to get up on their hind legs.
Rarely does a baby try to stand up, fall over and then decide that walking isn’t for them.
They endure discomfort and repeated failure despite not yet being able to read and internalise the tenets of a self-help book.
Survival of the least comfortable
Butterflies that cannot be bothered to fight their way our of the chrysalis, don’t get to fly. As living organisms, we are wired for stepping out of our comfort zones. Nature is cruel and each day is an exercise in survival. Near death experiences are a daily occurrence. That holds true today for our fellow living organisms.
However, we are of course smarter. So we contrived our environment to eliminate discomfort and near-death experiences. Comfort is the goal of the industrial era and this required what I have termed synthetic certainty. Unfortunately for some, we are leaving the industrial era behind us and are entering the era of disruption, where the future is unknowable.
Adapt or cry
Adaptation is how living organisms deal with uncertainty. Imagine that you are well into your career as a lawyer and have ascended to a level whereby everyone else does the headless chicken stuff and you enjoy the toys and experiences that go with your status.
The bad news is that you are likely to soon experience a level of discomfort that the patricians felt during the last days of the Roman empire.
Good for you if you have anticipated this and have your economic safety net in place.
But many people do not see this coming. Their future is not good, if they are not prepared to work through the discomfort of saying goodbye to their previous ‘good’ life and do the hard yards in finding a new way to stay in economic play. They will become the adult baby who just lies there saying feed me or whining on about when somebody will change their nappy. Worryingly, the industrial era has been built on learned helplessness.
Go with the flow
Seligman’s thoughts on flow struck a chord with me. Flow is where the stress to skill outcome ratio is optimised for greatest results. Too much or too little stress leads to sub-optimal outcomes. This flow sweet spot requires competence and it requires taking risks, ie stepping out of your comfort zone.
As an aside, he implies that hedonism and flow are self-centred states, whereas purpose involves others. Athletic teams, laboratory scientists and even corporate teams can and do enter a flow state. Perhaps even purpose is ultimately an attempt to help others reach a flow state?
Standing on the shoulders of relatives
Living a life on the edge of your comfort zone is where deep learning takes place. Go too far beyond it and you walk around aching and injured, like me!
I believe going beyond our comfort zone is a human imperative.
Not doing so, is both giving our ancestors the finger (those fools!) and setting us up for our demise of humanity. For a few, comfort was a lifestyle option. But for the rest of us, it was an aspiration that we daydreamed of during our daily grind.
I congratulate those of you who are doing good / great work without leaving your comfort zone. But I feel such people could soar even higher if they took the occasional walk outside their comfort zone.
I’m off now to do my third set of pull-ups!