According to Wikipedia (the authoritative source on everything), the comfort zone is a risk-neutral state of limited behaviors in which outcomes are steady and predictable. They also add that stepping outside the comfort zone requires experimentation with new and different behaviors and experiencing the new and different responses that occur within that environment. Let’s go with this. Being in the so-called comfort zone is objectively less desirable than being in the undefined space outside of it. There may be some amount of universally accepted truth to this. After all, in order to learn, grow, and develop as human beings, we necessarily need to embrace the unfamiliar. But does the act of stepping outside our comfort zone help us achieve this purpose? I suppose it can, just as much as it can’t.
The key word is purpose, which I believe is unfortunately lacking from conversations surrounding the comfort zone. In the dark and unknown territory that exists in the space outside the comfort zone, purpose is the flash-light, without which it is easy to continue stumbling around in a dark land of ambiguity. So we try new things, with hopes that the new thing will be more satisfying than the last new thing. But in doing so, what was actually gained or achieved? What difference was made? Did we become better? Does not the lack of purpose in this endeavor make this an exercise in vacuity? Is “stepping outside our comfort zone” the ends or the means to something greater? I don’t have the answers to these questions, and most of pop culture it seems does not either.
The whole notion of creating sensational experiences, to experience known outcomes seems to me like simulated reality, the sensation received being the ends itself. If our world is a chemistry experiment, we are the systems experiencing an endless string of endothermic reactions, absorbing energy from our surroundings, releasing little value. I’m not averse to taking risks and experiencing new things, in fact I’m sure we can all agree that it is a necessary condition in order to experience personal growth. However I believe that this process should not just enrich our personal world, but the world around us, and allow us to release more energy into our surroundings than what we absorb, rather, an exothermic reaction.
If we set about the path of the unknown with the purpose of discovery and unveiling hidden truths, we must know that it isn’t always going to be a thrill ride. It isn’t always going to be satisfying. In fact at times it will be downright impossible, and it has to be. In order to be worthy of the awakenings that await outside of the comfort zone, we must be willing to part with our most beloved possessions; our biases, our prejudices, the mental frames that we’ve grown so fond of. So maybe instead of trying to break down barriers that define our comfort zone, we need to throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea of the unknown, the real unknown, knowing that return will require hard-toiling effort, perseverance, heartbreak, emotional turmoil, it will seem impossible, but all the while knowing that we will return richer with truth and conviction.
My guess is that it takes a lot more courage to confront yourself at your most base levels, and tackle your assumptions, world views, prejudices, and biases head on, and also causes hell of a lot more discomfort than simply “stepping outside of your comfort zone” for the purposes of sensation, thrill seeking, and simply expanding your experiential palette. Taking risks and trying new things outside of what is known and familiar is all well and good, but my point is, is that all there should be? I believe in going beyond the vague non-space outside the comfort zone, into the deliberately uncomfortable discomfort zone. Into the abyss of the unknown, knowing only that you know little, with purpose. With the purpose of finding a better, truer you, rather than simply a well-travelled, well-cultured, more experienced, pseudo-savant you.
Perhaps the questions we should be asking each other and ourselves are not along the lines of “when was the last time you stepped outside your comfort zone?”
We should rather ask“when was the last time you confronted your innermost self?” Or, “when was the last time you did something with complete purpose?” Even, “when was the last time you acted upon deep, pure, unconditional conviction?” I’m convinced that these paths are far more emotionally risky and unsafe, and their payoff infinitely greater.
This blog post was written by Maryam Haya (Safety Research Advisor - Ontario Ministry of Transportation). Maryam completed her undergraduate studies at McMaster University (major in Economics) and has also completed her Masters in Economics from York University.