The Dangers of the Comfort Zone

As I mentioned in a post last week, I have a lot of significant anniversaries in the first half of July. I want to talk some about how I got to where I am today. But first, I want to share this blog post:

Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life by Leo Babauta (posted on Zen Habits, July 12, 2013)

This is one of the wisest and most important things I’ve read. It resonates deeply with me. And there’s a lot of history which explains why I find this post is so meaningful.

In the summer of 2008, I was working as a temp doing data entry for a non-profit health support and outreach organization. This was the last in a series of temp jobs I’d held in a variety of Chicago offices since 2004 (with a brief stint as an office coordinator that lasted less than a year). In the fall of 2008, I began my studies at the Graduate School of Library & Information Science at Dominican University in River Forest, IL, as a part-time student (and I was hired full-time by the company for which I’d been doing temporary data entry work, which allowed me to pay my bills while I was in school).

Office temping was my second career since I finished college as an undergrad. From 1995 until 2004, I worked exclusively as a freelance theatrical and special events technician (I continued to work part-time as a theatre techie until 2007). I left theatre for two reasons:

  1. I’d gone as far in my tech career as I wanted to go, and I didn’t want to move into any other jobs in the arts.
  2. With rare exception, freelance theatrical technician isn’t a career that offers much in the way of financial security, health insurance options, or anything remotely resembling a decent retirement plan. Like any other manual labor work, it’s also hugely damaging to your body over time. By 2004, I’d reached an age where things like health insurance and a retirement fund had become very important to me, and I was already past due in establishing them in my life. I was also ready to stop being in pain at the end of so many work days.

It took me from 2004 until 2008 to realize that there was a much deeper problem underlying my life, and that switching my career from techie to office worker did nothing to address it:

I was stuck in in my comfort zone.

I originally came to Chicago to be an actor. But I did very little acting in college (outside of class) and none after I graduated. Why? Because of fear. Tech work was easier to get and—for a new graduate, anyway—it paid better than acting gigs. Which made it a far less risky choice than trying to be an actor. I also rationalized that, unlike all my actor friends who were waiting tables and working as receptionists to pay their bills, I was making a living doing theatre exclusively.

More than that, though… While I enjoyed tech work, and while I was very good at it, it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing—which meant that I never had to truly invest myself in it. I had no stake in the work beyond my own work ethic and sense of responsibility.

At root, I always knew I could walk away from this work with no disappointment or damage. I had nothing much invested, so I had nothing much to lose.

If anything, I was even less invested in what I was doing when I made the switch to office work (at least tech work had kept me involved in theatre). Office work presented even less personal risk.

My jobs were bookended by a personal life almost entirely devoid of daring. I was social only because my fellow techies/friends and roommates dragged me out with them. I made very little effort on my own. I was perfectly comfortable just coming home, making some dinner, and then web surfing or watching TV or reading a book all night. Left to my own devices, I’m not sure I would have ever gone out.

The ruling factor of my life was maintaining a sense of safety: a complete aversion to risk in any aspect of my life. My comfort zone felt safe and I clung to it.

My comfort zone was incredibly unhealthy for me. Not only was my life winding down to nothing terribly remarkable at the ripe old age of 32—but without the physical exertion of tech work, I was as inactive and as unhealthy as I’d ever been, and only getting worse.

By sometime around the year 2007, even I had to realize that my comfort zone, as safe and risk-free as it may have been, was a very bad place for me to stay.

[This is not to say that there weren’t many experiences and moments during this period in my life that were good and happy and rewarding, moments that I still treasure—friends who are very dear to me—but almost all of them came to me despite myself.]

One day, I woke up and made a conscious decision to make myself as uncomfortable as possible. I had to kick myself out of my comfort zone.

What were the results of this decision?

  • I met and married the strongest, most amazing woman I’ve ever known.
  • I earned an MLIS degree with honors.
  • I began a career in libraries that engages my passion more than anything else I’ve ever done. I’m as personally invested in this work as it’s possible for me to be—and the reward of taking this risk is greater than I knew it could be. This is the most important work I can do.
  • I’ve found my home. For the first time since I left my parents’ house to go to college, I know that I’m somewhere I belong.
  • I’m getting back in shape. I’m healthier now than I’ve been in a long time and I’m going to keep getting healthier.

Second only to asking Julie to marry me, making myself as uncomfortable as possible is the best decision I’ve ever made. And it’s the decision that brought me to Julie, so even the first best decision I ever made owes itself to my decision to break out of my comfort zone.

Now I need to keep making myself uncomfortable. Financial security, employee-provided health insurance, a comfortable home… This all makes for a powerful temptation to settle down again and stop pushing myself. And maybe that would be OK now, maybe it wouldn’t be as destructive to my psychological and physical well-being as was much of my time in Chicago.

But I don’t even want to find out. I know that taking risks, investing myself deeply in the choices I make, and pushing myself is very, very good for me. I’d rather find ways to keep doing that.

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