Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Comfort Zone

I’ve been thinking a lot about my comfort zone the past few weeks, and in another week or so, I’ll be able to tell you why. (Insert smiley face that looks like the cat swallowed the canary.) It seems like that term is popping up all over the place. Is it because I just had another birthday and feel like I have to push the envelope even further with the passing of another year? Or is it just the effects of the waning summer when fall is approaching, schedules will be reinstituted and new endeavors seem to be the norm? I’m not sure, but I do know that I’m not the only one thinking about the comfort zone.

I ran into a dear friend the other day while walking along the beautiful Hudson River walkway a few blocks from my house. She asked me what I was thinking about before I approached her and I told her—my comfort zone. She looked at me, surprised, and said, “I was thinking about the same thing!” She said that she was reflecting on her diverse group of friends and how each one pushes her to go beyond what she feels is comfortable, most often to great effect.

I picked up the New York Times a few weeks back after seeing a news report on one of my heroes, Diana Nyad. No, I can’t swim, but I have always admired this world-record holding swimmer and her determination. She has circled Manhattan in the water, swam from Bimini to Florida over a two-day period, and now, had plans to swim from Cuba to Key West. At age sixty-one. Color me impressed.

According to the Times piece, while swimming, she would ingest a liquid cocktail of predigested protein (I don’t even want to know what that is, let alone taste it), maybe a little banana or some peanut butter. She would probably hallucinate and be stung by jellyfish repeatedly. Her tongue would swell as a result of ingesting salt water, and her skin? Well, suffice it to say that it won’t be the same as when she jumps in the water.

The trek is 103 miles and infested with sharks. If that’s not going outside your comfort zone, I don’t know what is. So why did she decide to do it? Nyad said that turning sixty had a powerful effect on her and made her want to “stir up her energy and ambition.” She had failed once to do this swim and wanted to try it again. She was in a bit of a malaise and needed to snap out of it. To put my own spin on it, she wanted to push herself out of her comfort zone.

Update: Nyad didn’t make it to Cuba, only about halfway. It was treacherous, yes, and filled with sharks, and jellyfish, but she basically just swam off course. I am wondering if she’ll give it another try, maybe when she’s seventy? I hope so.

We need to shake things up every now and again. I’m not saying that we need to attempt a one hundred and three mile swim in shark-infested waters, unless that’s the one thing that we think we need to do. For me, it was getting outside of my writing comfort zone and doing something totally different. I was terrified to tackle a new and different project. What if it was bad? What if I couldn’t do it? What if I failed? Ultimately, I decided that all of these things were keeping me from pushing myself farther, from becoming a better writer, and am more fulfilled person, creatively. I took a deep breath, jumped in, and went into the shark-infested waters of my mind.

And you know what? It wasn’t so bad. It actually may be good. But I never would have known unless I tried.

I’m not sure if Diana Nyad, the most bad-assed sixty-one-year-old woman I have ever read about, will undertake this swim again, but if she does, I’m going to send her a silent thank you for being a champion against malaise, complacency, and all those things that stand in the way of us getting out of our own way.

What types of things do you do to get out of your own personal "comfort zone"?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Maggie, I can't wait until you can spill about your other comfort zone! It's an exciting time, and Diana Nyad would be proud. ;-) I went outside my comfort zone to write Little Black Dress, that's for sure. And when I did that St. Louis Mag "top singles" thing six years ago, which led to my meeting Ed. So pushing yourself outside your comfort zone sometimes is the only way to see what's out there--and discover talents and people and interests we didn't even know existed. Awesome post!

  2. Good post and question, Mags.

    Harder to answer than I would have first guessed, but I guess stepping out of my comfort zone involves mostly two steps. First, it's making myself learn something, anything, new. Whether it's knitting or research on autism or someone's theory about a local housewife's disappearance, if I start a new intellectual project that helps. And, secondly, but often tied to the learning step, is getting involved with people, with others, with new faces and voices and attitudes. Join a local knitting group? Do it, even if it feels like you don't have the same good skills or even the time to give it. Take that phone call from a scientist who most everyone you've spoken to in the course of your research laughs at and tries to discredit? Yes, hear them out, listen to their perspective and ideas. Does one of the housewife's neighbors come across as a little too desperate to be heard and even a bit unhinged? So what, just make sure to only meet her in neutral public places and listen to her take on this. Be human with other humans.

    Lastly, I think this all comes down to saying "yes" more often than you say "no". I'm a big advocate of the timely and judicious use of a loud and firm "no", but if you say it too much, you're going to miss out on too much good in life.

  3. Great blog Maggie.

    I think the flip side of this discussion is one I struggle with frequently. I "think" I'm comfortable in my "comfort zone," but I'm not. I think I don't want anything to change because it's "safe" that way -- but too often it's boring, not safe; stagnant, not alive.

    Remind me when I get nervous about taking a chance on that big roller coaster of life that while the hills and valleys may upset my stomach, the exhiliration lasts longer than the ride.


  4. My most recent manuscript TOTALLY took me outside of my comfort zone. Different genre. Different voice. Different everything. Writing it was fun, but sending it to my agent scared the heck out of me. In my personal life, I love stepping outside my comfort zone and eating new foods, meeting new people and having new experiences. In my professional life, stepping outside of my comfort zone makes me lose lots and lots of sleep.