Comfortable Discomfort

Posted on 9th May 2019

Here's a quote to consider:
                               Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
                                                                                                   Neale Walsch

I can’t really say that life begins at the end of my comfort zone, but it certainly gets more interesting and exciting there. It also gets less convenient and sometimes a bit scary.

There are good reasons for settling into our comfort zones. For starters, they’re comfortable. We don’t have to worry about unknowns or failure or embarrassment. In the best of comfort zones, we don’t have to worry about anything. Events are predictable and outcomes are certain. We know what we’re doing and can carry it off with little effort. The world outside careens along in its messy, complicated way while we ride it out free of hassles. Sounds pretty good. Why not just stay there?

Because, as you’ve no doubt noticed, life is characterized by change. Some comfort zones are more durable than others, but change affects all of them in time: your key clients, your marketing approach, your professional knowledge, your go-to vendors.

I enjoy learning about concepts that stretch my understanding of how the world works. One of these concepts is complexity theory. If you’re not familiar with it, complexity theory looks at how very large systems operate, i.e., systems with an incalculable number of components interacting in an incalculable number of ways. Examples of such systems are the stock market or the weather. Complex systems operate beyond our control, though we can influence them to some degree. For the purpose of this essay, we live every day in a complex interaction of complex systems: our bodies, our social connections, our work environment, our national culture, our economy, and our environment. Complexity science tells us that these systems are in constant flux. What looks certain will, in time, become unpredictable and what looks unpredictable will, in time, show predictable patterns. In other words, we live in a world where order (the comfort zone) and disorder (change) flow constantly around and through one another.

But here’s the cool thing: Creativity thrives at the edge of disorder. Too much order and you’re stagnant. Too much disruption and you’re chaotic. Achieve the right balance of order and change and - Voila! - some special qualities emerge: creativity, innovation, learning, and growth.

Think of yourself as a surfer riding a big wave. You could slip off the back of the wave into calm waters and never experience the ride. You could get too far ahead of yourself and wipe out in the turbulence. Or you could ride the wave, perfectly balanced on the edge of chaos, creatively adjusting your balance to catch all the energy and avoid all the dangers as the wave rushes to shore.

Essentially, we surf all our lives. Sometimes we float behind the waves, read the situation from the safety of calm waters, and paddle around to find a good spot. We choose which waves to ride and which to let go. And when we find the right wave, we dig hard to position ourselves on a rising swell, hop up on the board, and feel the thrill of the ride, balancing confidently with each pitch and roll to avoid a wipe out. Then we swim back to the calm waters behind the waves to position ourselves for another ride.

Of course, this surfing metaphor begs the question: What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t have the stamina, or can’t pick good waves, or am just plain scared of wiping out? The answers are straightforward – find a surfing instructor, join a group of fellow surfers both at your level and better than you, practice on small waves, and work yourself up. Over time, you’ll build confidence, stamina, and knowledge. If you stick with it, you can’t help but get better. And you’ll notice a funny change – your comfort zone will morph right along with your confidence until you’re engaging in life and work activities you wouldn’t have thought possible at the start.

So, does life really begin at the end of your comfort zone? Yes and no. Your comfort zone is an essential part of life. Enjoy it. But at the edge of the zone you’ll find creativity, knowledge, and growth. You'll also find excitement, uncertainty, fear, and - in time - confidence. To surf the edge of chaos, you have to become comfortable with discomfort. And that’s real living.

Which leaves us with a final thought to ponder:

                              "If you always walk in sandals, the whole world feels like leather."

                                                                                                                                Chinese Proverb

Gregory Powell, Ph.D., 2019