Comfort. It’s safe. It’s predictable. It’s secure. It’s dangerous.
“The comfort zone is a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position.” – Judith M. Bardwick, author of “Danger in the Comfort Zone.”
I have always been a person that enjoys a challenge. I am always thinking of the next step to take. But that is my problem, I am ‘thinking’ I am not ‘doing.’ These are two very different things. Sometimes when I am in a state of ‘comfort’ I don’t even realise.
To put it simply, generally a person is acting within their comfort zone if their activities and behaviours are predictable; they have regular happiness; low anxiety; and reduced stress. Now you might be thinking, “what is the problem with that?”. Well it has come to my attention that this may not always be the best way to be living. You see, as people we need to be driven and stimulated in order to grow. Without a challenge or change we get to a stage that we become fearful to take any steps that may interrupt the comfort. This is relevant to all facets of human life. I am talking work, fitness, home life, whether to get a new house, whether to ask someone out.
Psychologists Robert M.Yerkes and John D. Dodson conducted an experiment in 1908 to explain that relative comfort creates a steady level of performance. To prove this, they did an experiment on mice. They found that providing them with stimulation improved performance up until a certain point. If that point is passed, then the mice were under too much stress and their performance would deteriorate. The point of improved performance is known as the level of “optimal anxiety.” This is the area that sits just outside of our comfort zone and is what helps to increase skill and expand our comfort zones. As our comfort zones continue to expand, we start to get over the fear of discomfort and aren’t too afraid to try new things in the future.
“What makes you comfortable can ruin you and only in a state of discomfort can you continually grow.” – Bill Eckstrom, entrepreneur, author, speaker.
I am at a point in my life where I have a growing curiosity with myself (as strange as that sounds). I am greatly intrigued with the human mind. I like to think of myself as a sponge, always absorbing new information.
I have always taken a conscientious approach towards my studies and research but it wasn’t until recently that I started looking at myself. Upon reflection of my life prior to 2016 I had never really taken risks. I had always done what I was ‘supposed’ to do. My life was like a manual. I did things step by step. But, around the age of 21 I ran out of steps. I had to work it out…. alone. To say that was a state of discomfort would definitely be an understatement. I was in my head all the time. I was doing a law degree (that I couldn’t see myself using), I was obsessively controlling my diet and exercise routine, I was in a job that I hated and I just felt lost. At that point I knew that something needed to change. My life was stagnant. I had nothing to challenge me.
Something shifted in me one day. I needed to do something spontaneous to create some excitement. I saw a waitress job advertised at my local café so I applied. With no knowledge of hospitality, little knowledge of coffee and a great love of avocado I somehow got the job. The first few shifts were such a blur. I was so uncomfortable. I felt exposed and really out of my comfort zone. I also felt empowered, liberated and light. Quite a mix of emotions. It wasn’t only my work environment that changed when I started a new job, other things in my life also started to shift. My diet and exercise changed to accommodate my new hours. I was changing up my study routine. I was associating with different people. The change wasn’t as scary as I thought.
The months that followed triggered me to change my career path and myself as a person. I started listening more to my intuition (this is still a work in progress) and cared less of what people thought of me. That was October 2016.
Fast-forward to the end of June 2018. I have finished uni for the semester and I am on break. I sat for a moment and reflected on the previous five months and realised something. I realised that I was right back where I was in October 2016.
This year I began my first full time year of study in a Bachelor of Health Science (Nutrition and Dietetic Medicine). It was new and interesting. Although the content is really different to Law, it is still somewhat the same. I am still a fulltime student with a part time job a couple of times a week who attends the same gym classes. I felt stuck in my environment. I stopped growing.
Bill Eckstrom is an entrepreneur, author and speaker. He introduced the concept of ‘Growth Rings’ in his 2017 TED talk at the University of Nevada. He describes the rings as environments that promote or hinder growth. There are four rings that are arranged in a vertical line.
Stagnation Ring (bottom ring): This is the ring of low performance. There are steps to follow, permissions and minutiae. In this ring a person is unable to be creative, have independent thought or take action.
Order Ring (just above stagnation): This is the ring that most people get stuck in. This is the ring where we know what we’re doing and the outcome is predictable. In this predictability people find comfort. This can be dangerous because as soon we constantly start thinking the same way and doing things the same way we stop growing.
Chaos Ring (top ring): Chaos is when a person has zero predictability or control. This can be caused by both internal or external events.
Complexity Ring (just below chaos): In complexity we start to feel uncomfortable. The order has changed so the outcomes are no longer predictable. While it is sometimes difficult to be in a state of discomfort, it is so important that we embrace it so that we can get sustained and exponential growth.
According to Eckstrom, ‘complexity’ is where we should be living. It is what provides us with the courage to try new things, take on new experiences and grow as a person. There are three ways that we can reach the stage of ‘complexity.’ The first way is to have it forced upon us; the second is with the help of a parent, coach, teacher or boss encouraging us and challenging us; and the third is to trigger it ourselves.
For me it was definitely myself that was the trigger to start making some changes. A couple of weeks ago I quit my usual gym classes and started training by myself. I started considering where my skills I have attained throughout my studies could be exercised outside of university. I am definitely feeling a bit of anxiety and discomfort kicking in. I won’t lie, I am a tad nervous where a few new opportunities could take me.
“Being slightly uncomfortable, whether or not by choice, can push us to achieve goals we never thought we could. But it’s important to remember that we don’t need to challenge ourselves and be productive all the time. It’s good to step out of our comfort zone. But it’s also good to be able to go back in.” - Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.
I think of all the things I have achieved in my life so far. Each of them came with a risk. Each of them came from discomfort. This relaxes me and reminds me that incredible things await us if we just take a chance, step outside our comfort zones and try something new. I am not saying you have to quit your job or do anything too drastic. This is just a reminder to really think about your life as it is today. How do you feel when you get up in the morning? Are you inspired? Are you driven?
The last couple of weeks I have said ‘yes’ to everything. I am determined for things in my life to shift a bit. It is time for me to shake things up and for me to think outside the box. I need to challenge myself. GROW. It is all about the little things.
Don’t underestimate the value of taking a different walking trail, trying a new food, or talking to a stranger. The world is at our fingertips to enjoy and explore. Take a step with me today into the world of ‘complexity,’ you might find that after a little while it is a pretty amazing space to be in and that things aren’t as scary as they seem.