Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

by Barry Michels

For his 25th birthday, one of my son’s friends asked a bunch of his “elders” to write a brief answer to the following question: What do you wish you’d known when you were 25 years old?

When I was 25, I was in my final year of law school. I’d gone because it seemed like a safe choice, one that preserved my options. Everybody told me “you can do so many things with a law degree.” They should have added “the only catch is you won’t care about anything you do.” I was also in a 5-year relationship with a woman who I felt affection for, but wasn’t in love with. It took us 2 more years to realize we both deserved more.

Both of these situations were examples of a comfort zone: a secure, predictable place that promises to keep you safe. Human beings have a deep desire for safety and familiarity. That’s why we naturally form habits: on some level, we like doing the same thing over and over again, even though it has the overall effect of deadening our lives.

Most people waste their lives in a comfort zone of some sort. Yours may be different from mine when I was 25, but if you examine your life with any honesty, you’ll find them—routines and patterns that don’t serve you. You may be dating people you know aren’t right for you. You may be avoiding committing to one person. Your comfort zone might consist of doing things that come easily, rather than challenging yourself with things you aren’t good at. For some people constant, frenetic activity is their comfort zone—they dread being still or alone, quietly meditating or reading a book. For others quiet solitude becomes their comfort zone: they dread being out among people.

What I know for sure is this: if you’re comfortable, you’re not fully alive. Everyone thinks the comfort zone is going to make life safe, but all it really does it make life small.

The lesson: always stretch yourself beyond what is familiar. Take the alien, untrammeled path. Spend time with people who seem irreconcilably different from you. Embarrass yourself by doing things you’re terrible at. Risk heartbreak. Take action on a cause that has always moved you deeply. Fall so deeply in love that breaking up seems like it will kill you. The wider you cast your net, the more varied and exciting your catch will be. Don’t be afraid to lose yourself in something or someone. Without the courage to lose yourself you’ll never really find yourself.

Taking risks like these isn't pleasant—it's more like plunging down into a dark place of fear, loneliness, confusion, and chaos. But the hero’s journey is never a linear ascent into the light. It requires us to go down and then climb back up again and again. That's why ancient Greek heroes ventured willingly into the underworld; their re-ascent gave them powers they couldn't gain any other way.

More than anything else, this is what I wish I'd known at 25: Progress, for individuals, communities, even countries, has a cyclical quality. You get pushed down and must fight your way back up to even greater heights. When we are the most uncomfortable and the darkness seems overwhelming, that is when we have the greatest opportunity to expand ourselves, as individuals and as a society. It is when everything plunges down into darkness that we can embody the heroic words of John Milton in Paradise Lost:  “Awake, Arise, or be forever Fallen.”