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Growth Mindset

The Upside and the Downside of the Comfort Zone

Knowing when to stay in your comfort zone and when to leave it.

Key points

  • The comfort zone is equated with complacency, but it’s also a vital plateau in the growth process.
  • Trying to stay in the comfort zone belies the fact that life is fundamentally uncomfortable.
  • The willingness to be shaken up is paradoxically the key to growth.
Source: monicore/Pexels

In the movie Papillon, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman play a couple of guys trying to escape from prison. In one scene, Steve McQueen’s character, Papillon (which means butterfly in French), is released from a long stretch of solitary confinement, during which he’d gotten into the habit of counting off the number of steps he could take in any direction inside the cell, which was five.

When they finally let him out, he slowly begins walking down a long stone corridor, counting off the steps. On the fifth step, he stops, looks around bewildered, and, for the first time in a very long time, takes a sixth step—on which he passes out cold.

It’s a striking illustration of how literally overwhelming it can be to take even a single step beyond what’s familiar, even when what’s familiar is a prison. How easy it is to go unconscious in the face of change.

The same goes for the famous "comfort zone" that we’re endlessly exhorted to step beyond lest we settle for less than we’re capable of. But when your life calls you to take that sixth step—whether it’s a small change, like ordering something other than your usual at the restaurant, or a big change, like quitting your job—on some level, you know what you’re up against. As soon as you take so much as a single step outside your comfort zone—whether it’s driven by the demands of growth, authenticity, passion, or crisis—all your doubts will likely come out to meet you. Which they do because that’s their job description: to make you go unconscious.

But the comfort zone has an unfairly bad reputation. It’s become synonymous with complacency and coasting, even cowardice, pointing an accusing finger at anyone who prefers its comfy confines to the rough-and-tumble of adventure and self-actualization. All it really means, though, is that your basic needs are being met without excessive striving. It’s a place where you feel safe and in control, and things feel familiar. In fact, given the cyclical nature of growth, it may be a well-deserved plateau reached after a period of exertion and risk and something you should relish.

Besides, anyone who grew up in a tumultuous or traumatizing family or life situation, and for whom safety and security are thus of paramount importance, shouldn’t be made to feel inferior because they prefer security to the relative anxieties of risk-taking.

But if you stay in that fallout shelter too long, your soul may start haranguing you for a little momentum and adventure. Inertia, after all, is the opposite of progress. The comfort zone shares a border with the rut, and it’s adjacent to the painfully ironic fact that life itself is simply uncomfortable. No getting around it.

In other words, if fear is useful—and after all, it helped get us through the evolutionary maze more or less intact—it’s useful only up to a point. And when something else becomes more important to you than fear—growth, healing, aliveness, integrity, sharing your gifts with the world before the clock strikes 12—then you're likely to act with real courage and commitment.

In fact, there’s a link between courage and the degree of meaning something has for you—the sense, at a deep level, that you know why you need to make a particular change or push a particular limit. The more meaning, the more courage.

But courage needs action in order to prove itself; otherwise, it’s just a high opinion you have of yourself. It needs to move you toward change that puts you in your Goldilocks zone—at the edge of your abilities but not so far over it that you short yourself out. Not too hard, not too easy, just right. What’s required to successfully step outside a comfort zone are challenges that you can execute with what psychologists call “just manageable difficulty.” “Where you are, and one step,” as a friend of mine puts it.

The Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine was awarded a Nobel Prize in the mid-1980s for a theory demonstrating that friction is a fundamental property of nature and nothing grows without it—not mountains, not pearls, not people. He understood that fragility—“the capacity to be shaken up,” as he put it—is paradoxically the key to growth. And any system—whether at the molecular, chemical, physical, social, or psychological level—that’s insulated from disturbance is also insulated from change and becomes stagnant.

Thus, the imperatives of growth—and even just learning—encourage us to be willing to occasionally get shaken up. Much of this is axiomatic: Chaos is part of the creative process; stress often leads to breakthroughs; crises often point us toward opportunities; and protest abets the cause of democracy. The whole science of immunization is based on this wisdom: We introduce a little chaos into the system in order to strengthen it. Just enough, but not too much, yet with the understanding that by its very nature as a counterforce to inertia, risk will likely scatter your lined-up ducks.

The desire to reach your potential will upset your inner couch potato. The hunger to travel will rock your worldview. The urge to be an entrepreneur could cost you your regular paycheck. The desire to connect more deeply with people will reveal the false intimacy of most of your social-media relationships.

Stepping outside the comfort zone is cultivating friction as a kind of fertilizer and risk as a kind of growth hormone. A friend of mine recently discovered this when her therapist gave her an assignment to break one rule a day for two weeks as long as it benefitted her work. By “rule,” he meant the assumptions and formulas that orchestrate her relationship to doing business. He wanted her to step outside her comfort zone, take some chances, and realize that habits are habits because they tend to work, but they’re not the only way things can work, and they sometimes work against us.

As for how you know when it’s time to take that sixth step, when the comfort zone has become too small for you, consider the following formula from Christine Kane, a folk singer and founder of a motivational company called Uplevel You: “You’ve said, ‘At least I have benefits,’ more than once in the last month. You think to yourself, ‘I need to just learn to surrender to this place and be present and grateful,’ and a few seconds later, you think, ‘Don’t I?’ You’ve used any of the following words or phrases when referring to yourself: ‘Stuck.’ ‘Can’t.’ ‘Shouldn’t.’ ‘Should.’ Or ‘This is just how I am.’ There are more than three empty Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough Ice Cream containers in your trash this week. You’re waiting to be discovered rather than committing to discovering yourself, and you check your email regularly to see if you’ve been discovered yet. You think that ‘getting out of your comfort zone’ means getting out of bed in the morning.”

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