One of the ideas that’s having a major moment these days is the notion that we should all be pushing outside of our comfort zones. Preferably all the time and in every setting, but especially when it comes to work. Some things you hear:
Quit your job and travel the world!
Stop wasting time in that boring job and pursue your passions!
Don’t be afraid to dream big!
The idea of getting out of your comfort zone has understandable appeal and scientific backing. Staying in our comfort zones can make us feel like mindless zombies following the herd, or always taking the path of least resistance. Staying in our comfort zones can mean never trying new things, never setting big goals, never exploring new places or meeting new people. If you’re even reading this — a blog about a still pretty revolutionary idea and/or the best life hack ever — you’ve probably had that moment of “waking up” to the idea that you don’t have to work until 65 and then settle for a golden age spent in a recliner watching The Price Is Right. That is definitely the kind of thinking that requires getting out of our comfort zones.
But a lot of that get-out-of-your-comfort-zone advice that’s ubiquitous on Pinterest these days also prioritizes now over the future, sometimes in a big and deeply unsettling way — or at least unsettling for those of us who enjoy security and stability. (Or, let’s be honest, who need security and stability.) And so while some folks might be plenty comfortable following that advice to push out of their comfort zones, we’re here today to give you permission to ignore at least some of it.
The whole idea of a comfort zone makes evolutionary sense. We’re wired for survival, and that feeling that something is uncomfortable is our internal alarm system warning us away from something overly risky or stressful that might harm us. But of course we live in a very different time from that of our ancestors, and that internal alarm system that might once have kept us from wandering unwisely through the jungle at night is the same one that keeps us from taking more metaphorical risks that could, in fact, lead to greater happiness and fulfillment.
But that doesn’t mean that our comfort zones are all bad either. Life inside the zone is more efficient, while life outside it comes with more risk and fear, and therefore requires a lot more attention.
The Value of Pushing Outside Comfort Zones
Some of our best decisions in life have come when we ignored the alarm bells that told us to stay inside our comfort zones — especially being willing to date cross-country, and, of course, pursuing early retirement. There is huge value in broadening our horizons and challenging ourselves. Stepping outside our comfort zones helps us:
Achieve more — Being willing to stretch ourselves helps us set bigger goals and pursue them despite the challenges that come along. Pursuing FI would not be possible without getting out of our comfort zones.
Experience more — The easiest thing of all to do is stay home and not expend any effort. But that makes for a pretty boring life. Though travel to faraway places or trying new activities both require us to get a bit uncomfortable, it’s almost always worth it.
Learn more — When we step outside our comfort zones, we’re forced to adapt to new circumstances and take in information that expands our knowledge. This process of enrichment can be incredibly fulfilling.
Think more creatively — When we put ourselves in uncomfortable situations, not only do we learn more, but we also force ourselves to come up with different solutions to problems, or to see possibilities that we didn’t see before. That’s creative thinking at its best.
The Upside of Comfort Zones
Just as our internal alarm bells stop us from getting eaten by a tiger while out for a midnight jungle stroll, they also help us to know ourselves, and to protect ourselves from unnecessary stress. Embracing our comfort zones helps us:
Know what our non-negotiables are — Knowing, for example, if we are okay taking a “I’ll figure it out in the future” approach, or if we prefer to plan to things out in detail. If it’s hard to sleep at night without having a plan for financial security, that’s worth knowing.
Understand our risk tolerance — Understanding the choices that feel easy and stress-free and those that trigger the alarm bells helps us understand where those risk tolerance boundaries are for each of us.
Know what support and love feel like for ourselves — Our comfort zones are the places where we feel supported and loved, which helps us define how much love and support we need to be happy.
The Unintended Consequence
The problem with all the comfort zone advice comes not from the general commandment to get outside our comfort zones, but with the specific ways that people might in turn interpret and espouse that advice. Like the idea that you should quit your job and travel now (implication: you can only travel when you’re young), side hustle as much as you can (ignoring that main jobs might provide more than enough stress for some people), or stop doing that boring job that pays the bills and “do what you love” (an assertion that drips with privilege).
There are a million ways to break out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves, but a lot of the specific advice that’s out there tends to suggest that there are these key things we should all be doing, and if we aren’t doing them, we’re somehow failing.
There’s no one right way to stretch our own boundaries and comfort zones, and even thinking in comfort zone terms might be counterproductive. There’s no timeline on stretching our comfort zone boundaries, no point at which those delineations are set. We don’t miss out permanently on the chance to do something just because we didn’t do it on someone else’s timeline.
The Right Balance // Sequence Might Matter
How you get outside your comfort zone matters. And while it’s good to get out of it sometimes, it’s not essential that you make that process any more stressful than it needs to be. In other words, it’s okay to find comfortable ways to get outside your comfort zone. You don’t have to make getting out of your comfort zone more uncomfortable than it already is.
Just as our culture loves a boot straps story, we also love a story of someone who did something bold and audacious, someone who took a big risk and found a big reward. And taking that approach to life might be totally great for some people. But it’s not the only way to win at life.
Ultimately, we’re most likely to be productive, reach our goals and be happy if we stretch the boundaries of our comfort zones, so that the comfort zone itself encompasses more of life and gets bigger:
But we can do that in ways that honor the comfort zone itself — our non-negotiables, our risk tolerance and the love and support we need.
For example, if you dream of starting a company, but your comfort zone says that it stresses you out like crazy to be financially insecure and to worry about paying the bills, then you’re not failing if you wait to start the company until you have a big financial cushion built up from doing a “boring” job that you don’t love. The romanticized stories we love to tell about entrepreneurs who started with nothing and built something amazing make it sound like you have to start before you can pay the bills, but there’s nothing romantic about being consumed by stress or unable to sleep at night. (Plus, very few notable entrepreneurs came from such modest means that they didn’t have family support to fall back on. That matters.)
Or let’s say you dream of traveling the world. You see travel bloggers left and right writing about how it’s such much easier than you think to save enough money to travel, and then to piece together enough income on the road to keep it going indefinitely. But you wonder how, if you follow that model, you’ll ever be able to save for retirement or for big goals like buying a home. If alarm bells go off for you when you think about that, it’s 100 percent okay to listen to them.
The key here is that you don’t give up on those big goals, but that you figure out the sequence that works best for you. Getting out of your comfort zone to achieve any one goal might not be as simple as taking a leap right this second. It might look more like this:
If you’re a risk-averse person, it doesn’t mean you are doomed to be stuck inside your comfort zone forever, and it doesn’t mean that getting outside of it will always be stressful. It might just mean that you will be happiest if you do a little work before you take the big leap. That could mean doing what we’re doing and saving up for early retirement first and then traveling the world, or building up a cushion before you pursue your big, hairy, audacious goal. (Obviously FIRE is great for all of this — it frees us up to pursue big goals without worrying about the money side of things.)
And after we push ourselves each time, we can reassess and figure out if those boundaries have shifted, if our non-negotiables have changed or if we’re more willing to embrace risk now.
What are areas in your life where you’re more comfortable stretching yourself, and other areas where you want to do more planning or saving first? Have you found any great happiness or fulfillment from getting outside your comfort zone? Or any great joy from staying inside of it? Share your take in the comments.