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Seriously, Your Comfort Zone Need Not Be Cozy – but That Does Not Mean Staying in It Is Fine.
Here is a story of mine. Before I started my life in university, I had some wild thoughts. What on earth can escape from a teenager’s dream? I came up with numerous dreams, including joining the Students’ Union, learning video clipping, composing songs – as a personal interest – and even writing some science fiction and turning the story into a Japanese-style animation, with the bell tower on campus as an ultimate weapon! The freshman year is purely for exploration!
Then classwork flooded into my schedule, and I got down to serious work like everyone else. With all the essays submitted and all the exams taken, I thought to myself in the spare time: the job of a student is to get good grades; plus, all the plans seem time-consuming, I do not feel like moving right now, and I cannot afford to give up once starting. So, I reviewed some lessons, previewed others, and spent all the other time watching funny videos and relaxing around.
Starting to get the point? I felt trapped in my comfort zone, which was not comfortable at all! But that was not the worst! As the winter holiday approached, I thought of learning math modeling and found a set of courses. This time the leaps are smaller and must be easier to make! It turned out that – I read textbooks of humanity, which was strange for a computer engineering student – and made large sheets of notes. The math courses? Those formulas were so threatening! Since I dared not dive into the field to discourage myself and, in the meantime, did not want to waste time, this was my perfect plan of keeping my mind and hands busy. Every day before bed, I told myself I indeed learned something new, and it had been another well-lived day.
But there is a voice, small but firm, deep inside my heart – rather than my brain – that continuously complains about the current situation. “You are limiting your view to the routine classwork,” shouted the voice, “and have you ever felt like jumping out of that comfort zone?” Wait, wait, wait, not that fast – we have all heard of the “comfort zone,” it sounds like poison to our minds, a dangerous place to stay in, and we all attempt to escape from its control though hardly ever succeed…… But what is the point of doing so? What makes the comfort zone so “evil?” And ultimately, when and how should we get ourselves moving away from it?
A better question to start with is: “What exactly is a comfort zone?” A precise definition does not seem realistic since we all have different understandings, but we can look for features! The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a place or situation in which you feel safe or comfortable.” Let us start with the vital characteristics of “comfortable.” Some of you may think of lying on bed and enjoying snacks, as you regard your bedroom as a geographical “comfort zone.” But this view does not fit my case. Though I feel sorry for limiting myself in classwork, it does not mean classwork is easy! 30 pages of textbook and 6 pages of notes per day is a great deal, especially during the holiday! I would not call this comfortable! What is wrong here?
It turns out that the word “comfortable” itself is being interpreted differently here. In the bedroom case, I would rather call this the state of “coziness,” as it is all about putting aside your work and relaxing to the full extent. This is becoming less and less likely to happen in the rapidly developing world, especially for university students with all that workload! In the classwork case, instead of acting out of coziness, I am sticking to the routine because of “familiarity” and “skillfulness.” I have got used to the curriculum syllabus during the semester and am familiar with the expected content and difficulty, unlike the brand-new math course. This is what it means to say “comfort zones need not be cozy” – especially when you have no choice of coziness, you tend to reach for the option with the highest familiarity and skillfulness.
This last aspect closely relates with the other characteristics of “safety,” which claims that you dare not take a risk to step out because of current “assurance.” Since you are so familiar with and skilled at doing a certain thing, you are guaranteed to achieve positive results once you put effort into it. The absence of assurance arouses our fear. Think about your parents’ words that “safety is the priority of everything” when you were a child. Well, “that message sank in a little too deep” and started to limit our exploration. In my classwork case, I may gain a deeper understanding of new terminologies in sociology having a framework of the subject in mind, but may be scared facing math formulas concerning knowledge from sophomore or junior courses. As a result, we stay and dig deeper at a fixed place and develop some mental inertia, as said in the other half of the definition, “especially when you choose to stay in this situation instead of trying to work harder or achieve more.” This is the major source of resistance force!
With this basis, it is probably time to shed light on another common misunderstanding. You have just seen that not all comfort zones are “comfortable,” or “cozy.” Another issue is about how to distinguish the comfort zone from the “outer zone.” A popular idea is that you learn nothing or slowly inside your comfort zone. Again, my case is an exception: reading textbooks did promote my learning in humanities, and fully devoting myself to classwork in the first semester has indeed brought me a fairly good GPA. What is the vital criterion, then?
My answer would be that the “outer zone” is more challenging and uncertain. When you are exposed to a new environment and told to research on a never-heard-before discipline, you are not extending your knowledge in the original framework whose structure and convention you are familiar with; you create a new framework, where the rewards are less assured, and you act less skillfully. Your boundaries are being challenged, and rewards are uncertain. It is common to be afraid in this case; nonetheless, keeping your “system” up to date is a must in the era of data technology. Research on educational methods reveals that training statistics students to handle coined terms from other subjects helps enhance work capacity in future careers. The flows of communication between people and disciplines are circulating faster than ever before, and while scholars in different areas create their comfort zones through terms, learning to switch between comfort zones is essential for one to survive in the grand wave of information.
The trend is similar in universities, where the focus of education is shifting from training specialists to cultivating cross-disciplinary researchers. I am taking my undergraduate degree program in an international joint institute, where discipline-based departments do not even exist! Instead, students from multiple majors working together in design and discussion courses. It inspires students to explore the unknown outside their comfort zones – one must incorporate knowledge of other majors into a project. Though it may be common in American colleges, it is leading reform in the educational model in my homeland China.
Nevertheless, despite the degree program as external motivation, I am still making efforts to escape from my comfort zone in daily life. Here is one of my techniques, which may also work for you. It is about goals. Remember how I shelved my plan of learning math modeling? “Those formulas were threatening, and I did not want to discourage myself.” There is fear in these words! It seems like my goal is too high! Instead of reaching the core principles in one go, maybe I can get onramp through some easy models and examples. Being overly ambitious will only introduce fear of not being able to finish our plans, so why not try reaching out one step at a time? Psychology tells us that when one draws a circle with a niche, he tends to complete it. You will find yourself “on the flow” once getting started, and nothing can stop you from changing!
Here is another way to think of fear. If you have seen the Venn graph depicting “zones” in your mind, you will find a “fear zone” outside the “comfort zone” before reaching the “learning zone” and “growth zone.” It is perfectly normal, and I do not suggest you eradicate your fear; instead, make use of it. Here is the theory of Challenge Point Framework, which is first applied in medical education. The main idea is that performing “repetitive uniform tasks” only works for the novice, but advanced learners improve through “random, more complex tasks.” They present “complicated and unpredictable” challenges outside the comfort zone, which maximizes learning efficiency. So, proper levels of stress and fear stimulate learning! Design some complex tasks with acceptable risks, focus, and enjoy the mind flow of absorbing knowledge!
Factually, dealing with the comfort zone is never a clear and straightforward issue that can be presented in 15 minutes, since its effect has diffused to the social level. Referring to China again, there has been an ongoing debate about whether the “Spirit of Craftsmen” may encourage one to develop maximum skillfulness limited to a specific field. Even the issue of “involution” is involved – that is the extreme case where everyone works on nothing else but the current affairs, which are often in the comfort zones. However, trying new things can still be a great experience, and we do not want to cruise along the shore with the possibilities in the open sea!
To sum up, your comfort zone need not be cozy – it is where you work with high levels of familiarity and skillfulness with assured rewards. Being challenging is what the “outer zones” differ from your comfort zone. Departing from comfort zones is compulsory for entering the era of data and technology. We are pleased to see social changes, especially in higher education, but to push personal improvement requires realistic goals and finding your challenge point.
The best time to start moving is now. Go for it.