Living Outside Your Comfort Zone

Go beyond what makes you comfortable. Open yourself to ideas, events, relationships that make you uncomfortable. Travel places where you know no one. Learn another language. Create art, even though you’re not an artist. Argue with people. Fall down. Get up. Read books, all sorts of books.

Juan Williams of NPR during his commencement speech at Whitman College

outside comfort zone

I was paging through an article of commencement speech clips over breakfast yesterday morning and this quote stuck with me all day. It recalls so many recent conversations and its message resonates on so many levels. But doing something that makes you uncomfortable — doesn’t that sound odd?

During this visit home, we’ve been asked repeatedly, How do you do what you do? How do you get your stories? How did you get that photo?

Although there’s no foolproof recipe, regularly challenging our fears and doing things we once thought uncomfortable both play a big role.

So my first thought upon absorbing this quote was, “We do this. This is us. We live so much of our life outside the comfort zone.

Then I stepped back and wondered, “Do we really?

After all, going outside our comfort zone is not about going to a place but rather embarking on a journey that involves continually challenging our assumptions and expanding the boundaries of what feels comfortable to us.

When I considered this, I wondered some more: Maybe we don’t do this enough. Or perhaps we need to do it differently.

As we explore and expand our boundaries, here are some thoughts regarding comfort zones — and how to get outside of them.

1) Acknowledge Your Fears

At the root of all hesitation to change, fear.

Fears are natural. They are also rooted in basic physical and emotional needs. That often makes them easy to overlook, easy to dismiss.

Acknowledge and understand your fears one by one before taking steps to address them — don’t tackle them all at once. If you don’t acknowledge your fears it will be difficult to recognize and characterize your success once you’ve overcome them.

As much as we’ve had experience with public speaking and presentations, we have become comfortable with “speaking” primarily through our website. Believe it or not, we have fears of standing up in front of an audience — particularly when we’re out of practice.

So recently, we began doing presentations and school talks as part of our visit home.

It got us out from behind the computer screen — and it forced us to face up to one of our fears.

2) Take Emotional Risks

We are often asked what has been the most frightening thing we’ve done or faced along our journey. No, it’s not almost getting trampled at the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan nor is it getting lost in the mountains or any of the various “adventurous” things that have happened to us on the road. It’s the stuff whose arc of uncertainty spans not moments, but lifetimes.

It’s handing in our resignation letters in November 2006. We had all the trappings of safety and comfort back then – good pay, great health insurance (probably the best we’ll see in our lives), nice benefits, etc. But we weren’t learning and growing in the ways we wanted.

It took a mini midlife crisis for me to understand how high a priority continual learning was in my life (actually, in both of our lives). Ironically, it was a coach hired by my employer as part of management training who really helped me see clearly that I needed a radical change.

I sometimes wonder what my life would look like today if I had never handed in that resignation letter. I suppose it would be good in terms of physical and financial comfort. But would I swap that comfort for what I’ve learned and experienced these last three and a half years?

Not at all. I won’t wax long about the reasons, but if you’ve followed our website or have seen us at one of our recent presentations, you’ll probably understand why.

3) Check Routines, Chuck Some

There’s value in routine. But like anything valuable, routines ought to be subject to occasional evaluation.

Routines show up in the strangest of circumstances. Even our current existence is subject to routines — and ruts. This observation may surprise people given that so much of our lives is about hopping chicken buses, immersing ourselves in markets and new cuisines, talking with random people on the street, and conversing in foreign languages — all activities that smack of spontaneity.

Jumping from Killer Rock at Nay Aug Park in Scranton, PA
Taking the jump. Scary. Exciting.

But anything you do over and over again can and does become routine after a while.

At that point, it’s time to actively consider your routines and whether or not they need to be swapped for something different.

4) Expand the Boundaries of Comfort

Expand the collection of life experiences with which you are comfortable.

Our boundaries now are different than when we had our desk jobs. What was uncomfortable yesterday becomes comfortable today. The task remains always: continual growth and creation of another set of opportunities to pursue productive discomfort.

The next new geographic area for us to tackle: Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, we are adjusting our personal and professional goals. Amidst all the exciting possibilities, I understand there will be times when we’ll want to crawl back into our comfort zone and just do what we’ve done before.

5) Don’t Play Trading Places

People often tell us that they are jealous of our lives, that they wish they could do what we’re doing. No less so when we are on American soil.

In response, we joke: “Are you really sure about that?

Even without the nasty, bedbug ridden hostels and restrictive budget, we spend so much of our lives outside our comfort zone. We take so many personal and professional risks that enable us to do what we do. Arguably our only safety net: ourselves and our wit.

This isn’t for everyone.

Don’t wish you had someone’s else’s life. Find out what it is that you admire and value in that person’s life. Focus on one aspect and try to be that way in yours. Let your choices and actions reflect your values. In other words: live deliberately.

6) Think: What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

If you are staring down a fear and you know the risk you need to take to face it, ask yourself: “What’s the worst that can happen?

When you consider the worst case scenario, you may just realize that the consequences of failure really aren’t that bad.

When considering our life choices over the last four years, one friend recently asked: “But really, what did you have to lose?

Good question.

7) Fire Up Your Curiosity

So you are jazzed about jumping outside of your comfort zone, but you are only seeing the same old stuff? How to find more pockets of productive discomfort?

Our advice: light the fires of curiosity.

If you allow your curiosity to guide you, you will always find something new…even in your own backyard. And chances are you will never be bored.

——

Finally, a word about doing something different. Some people will love you for it. Others will be threatened by what you do, for it challenges their assumptions and the choices they’ve made.

You know, what you guys are doing makes some people really uncomfortable.” — We have heard this repeatedly, particularly over the last couple of weeks.

But others’ discomfort is not yours to manage.

As you are doing all this, celebrate the victories and take stock in the confidence and new skills you are building. Keep moving forward. When you do, you’ll be wondering what it was that made you uncomfortable in the first place.

What about you? What will you do today that goes beyond your comfort zone?

Enjoy this?

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Comments

  1. says

    I think I will have to take “Live Deliberately” with me where ever I go. It is so lovely.

    Hubby and I are heading to Central/South America later this year and one of our main goals is to push boundaries. We have been stuck in this sterile, comfortable environment for so long that I feel that I need to get out, push myself and grow. Thank you for sharing this. We’re right there with you!

  2. says

    Great advice! I agree – I always like to consider what’s the worst that can happen (b/c as you say, it’s usually not that bad), but better yet, what’s the best that can happen?

  3. says

    I really love reading stuff like this, it’s so inspiring & motivating. I sometimes get frustrated trying to figure out how to make a change like you did by quitting to travel but reading this reminds me that I can do it, I just have to be patient & eventually I’ll find a good way to hit the road that works for me. Especially the “what’s the worst that could happen” part, always a good reminder to look at that when deciding on a change. Thanks for writing this :-)

  4. Pete De Ritter says

    Wow. I’ve been inspired. I’m going to get out of the la-z-boy and go out in the yard. I hope I don’t get a sunburn. ;-)
    Good advice. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. I’ve made some crazy career changes just to freshen up my perspective. The things I reminisce about (other than family and friends) are the ones that were the scariest.

  5. says

    It’s interesting, I’m getting ready to quit my job and leave the country in just about three months, and I know it’s getting close because all of the excitement I’ve been feeling is starting to give way to nervousness. I think that the week or so leading up to actually getting on the plane and take that leap is going to be the hardest bit. But I think that facing your fears and living outside your comfort zone is really important in life- so thanks for confirming to me that I’m on the right track!

  6. Catherine says

    I’ve been following your blog for a while and this post speaks to me so well right now. I have a year left of college and I’m trying to decide if I’m ready to fill out the application to the Peace Corps. Honestly, the prospect of actually doing it scares the hell out of me but I feel like I’d regret it forever if I didn’t give it a shot. Thanks for keeping me inspired through your adventures!!

  7. says

    Very, very timely! I am definitely at a crossroads, on the verge of making a life-changing decision, and this and your Live Deliberately post are both inspiring me to lean toward the risk I want to take over the more conservative option that some deep part of me says I “should”…
    Time to stop stewing and start taking action! Thanks for the right words at the right time!

  8. says

    Excellent tips and things to think about with regards to getting out of your comfort zone. Number 6 is something I always do with myself. I acknowledge the worst thing that could happen and usually realize that it is not that bad and that I am willing to risk that worst case scenario. That mentality really allows for adventure and being able to live your dreams!

  9. says

    What an amazing, inspiring post. Chock full of useful advice. I couldn’t agree more on #5 & #6, both I was guilty of at one time. I believe 95% of fear is based on that ‘worst’ scenario. I also use to grasp at others’ lives – instead of bearing down to examine what would make mine – ALL mine. The adventures in my future will change me in ways unpredicted at this point – I can’t wait to see it unfold. And please, turn this into a brochure you hand people at presentations. :)

  10. says

    @Erica: Live deliberately – it’s not always easy, but it is a great way to live. If you haven’t read Dan’s article on this, it’s worth a few moments to do so: http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2010/01/the-joy-of-living-deliberately/

    Good luck with your journey to Central and South America this year. It will certainly push boundaries and also make you reevaluate assumptions. Safe travels!

    @Deborah: It would be wonderful if more people thought “What is the best thing that can happen?” – that’s a good place to be! We’ve found, however, that most have resistance to change due to fear so they usually start with all the bad things that can happen to them if they make this or that move.

    @Ali: I’m glad this piece was useful! Although it may not happen tomorrow, it seems like you’re moving along this path of change and are waiting for the right opportunity to take the plunge. Good luck!

    @Pete: Make sure you bring that sunblock with you! If you’re using your lazy boy to watch the birds in the back yard instead of TV inside, that’s a good way to start exploring :)

    I’m with you that the moments in my life that stick with me and that I think about often (outside family) when I’ve taken a leap or done something uncomfortable.

    @Stephanie: Oh, I definitely think you’re on the right track. You’ve also got that purchased plane ticket for September to keep motivating you, too. And once you get past the nervousness that you’re experiencing now, you will be on a high with excitement. It gets much better after this, trust me :)

    @Catherine: Thanks for commenting and I’m glad this post was helpful. You may or may not know this, but I was a Peace Corps volunteer many years ago (Estonia, 1998-2000) and still have friends involved with Peace Corps today. If you send me an email, I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have about Peace Corps. My short answer for this comment section is to go for it. Peace Corps provides a great opportunity to grow personally and professionally, while giving back to a community. Additionally, Peace Corps does do a good job taking care of its volunteers – they’ll evacuate you if things get bad, will take care of all your medical needs and the other PCVs provide a good support network (they’ll likely become some of your closest friends). Good luck!

    @Margaret: I’m so glad that this post hit at the right time! Given everything you’ve done in your life and all the pokers you have in the fire now, I’m really excited to hear what this change will be! We’ll have to return to Chile and try some more red wine to celebrate :)

    @Mark: It sounds like you’ve got a good system set up by asking yourself the worst case scenario as a way not to talk yourself out of something. That’s hard to do on a regular basis, even if you know it logically (emotion usually gets the better of me).

    @Nomadic Chick: It’s hard not to fall into the trap of wanting another person’s life because it looks great or easy or exciting, but you hit on something so important – none of that really matters if you don’t make it YOURS.

    Handing this out as a brochure at presentations – that’s a great idea! We could combine this with the other articles for the series. We should hire you for our marketing team :)

  11. says

    Great post. We thrive on living outside our comfort zone. However, as you say in #5 its not for everybody, even though so many have told us they wish we could do what we do. Though our tyraveling lifestyle is not for everyone, I think it’ss important for everyone to push there comfort zones, wherever their zone may lie.

  12. Pam says

    GREAT post!!

    “I sometimes wonder what my life would look like today if I had never handed in that resignation letter.” – I know exactly what you mean. My resignation letter was turned in just over a year ago, and the past year has been the best in my life… even without a job.

    There is no reward without risk. But the risk is so worth it!!

  13. says

    After giving a speech on the same subject, I would add one more “take out the word can’t”. I don’t mean it in a Disney-esque way, but more of a practical way: you will have to make sacrifices to live outside of your comfort zone and you’re either willing to make them or you’re not. Don’t say you can’t do something, though, just because you’re unwilling to give up other things.

    Great list for anyone, though!

  14. says

    One thing I love about travel is it forces you to step outside your comfort zone. It has definitely made me a much richer person and someone willing to try a lot more things.

  15. says

    @Trans-Americas: I completely agree that the style or life that you (or we) have chosen is definitely not for everyone – living with uncertainty can put some people over the edge. But, there are always ways to do things outside one’s comfort zone to open up learning opportunities.

    @Pam: Congrats on your one year anniversary of handing in your resignation letter! That’s awesome everything has worked out so well!

    @Kyle: Great point. We often get told, “I wish we had the money to travel” and we then look and see a brand new $30k car in the driveway of this same person or a new flatscreen TV or whatever. If you take out the word “can’t” then there are a whole lot of excuses that go out the window.

    @Matt: Travel is a great way to get people outside of their comfort zone, but it’s not always a guarantee. We had a conversation the other day with a woman who met a friend in Venice a few years ago for a trip. Her friend had never traveled without an organized tour and was so afraid of getting lost and something bad happening to her that she would rather stay in her hotel room than go outside on her own.

    After I wrote this post, I thought of another post on traveling outside your comfort zone. There are small things that travelers can do to push the limits each day. As you wrote, the rewards on being a more open person with perspective are so worth it!

  16. says

    Very inspiring words. I especially love this, “But others’ discomfort is not yours to manage.” Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. I think travel definitely forces us out of our comfort zones, but I’m finding I need to travel farther and farther to feel “challenged.”

  17. says

    Expanding the boundaries of comfort is essential and something that is at the forefront of all my decisions these days. And it’s sometimes tiring and difficult, trying to find ways to push yourself even further all of the time.

    I find that a lot of people who were once so eager to set off on a nomadic lifestyle, but who soon decide to return to their previous way of life, do so because traveling gets stale for them after a while. I made the mistake, on my first five trips to India, of spending long periods of time in Delhi, staying in the same hotel every time. Eventually, I found myself bored as I then followed the same routine that I followed every time – the same restaurant, the same street stall, the same market – and that fifth trip was when I most seriously considered returning to live in the US.

    Only when I decided to avoid places I had already been to for awhile, and travel instead to places I felt would be the most mentally challenging, did I regain my love of travel. But it’s hard to do as, especially in foreign places, it is just too easy to make the most comfortable and familiar decisions!

    Few people realize (myself included when I first began traveling) how much effort and determination are required to ensure that one continues to receive the benefits associated with living outside of one’s comfort zone.

  18. says

    I like the term “productive discomfort.” That’s a good characterization of that zone. In some ways, we need to embrace our limitations. Often, they’re what make us our most creative.

  19. says

    @Amy: While we have supporting family and friends, it does sometimes come out that what we are doing makes them uncomfortable. We also have to remind ourselves that this is not our problem if our choices are right for us. I also understand what you mean about needing to travel farther to feel the same challenges you did when you were first starting out with travel. For us, we find that the adventure travel thrills that once excited us are now somewhat routine and finding different types of interactions with people that keep us challenged.

    @Earl: It’s sometimes easy to fall back on all that one has accomplished and learned and say, “Ok, I’ve arrived and now I’m going to take it easy.” But trying to keep expanding boundaries and going outside one’s comfort zone on a regular basis is tough and requires energy and time. I do like a Thai beach every now and then, however, to regain energy through relaxation, fruit shakes, curries and sunshine :)

    @Keith: I have to give credit where credit is due. Dan came up with the term “productive discomfort” when we were talking about all of this. I think that being honest about our fears and limitations with the determination to still push boundaries can produce some really creative ideas and results.

  20. says

    This article is brilliant and oddly enough I followed some of these tips on leaving your comfort zone.

    Though it was the point about taking emotional risks that I liked the most. It was because I took an emotional risk that my outlook on life changed and I now found myself in Libya!

    Once again great article!

  21. says

    This has got to be one of my favorite Uncornered Market posts of all time (and they’re all pretty good).

    Solid through and through!

    Book idea for you – Filter out these philosophical types of posts you have (you’ve got at least 2 dozen), group them and submit as a “life lessons learned on the road” type book proposal.

    Seriously.

  22. says

    I’m loving this post – I found you through Wandering Earl. I agree that you have to acknowledge your fears first or else you will find a thousand excuses. I used to actively confront my fears when I was a little younger but I’ve gotten a bit complacent lately. This is a good wakeup call. I have tackled the blogging thing but there are a lot of networking things that still scare me. You are totally right that you have to keep expanding the edges of your comfort zone and not just be satisfied that it’s larger than before. Even though I can’t travel internationally right now, I am trying to push my boundaries by experiencing new things here in Texas.

  23. says

    “Expand the boundaries of comfort” I like that one!

    Do you mind sharing with a new reader like myself how you guys make money to support your lifestyle? What about retirement savings and such?

    Thnx!

    Sam
    Yakezie Lifestyle

  24. anonri says

    I just came across your website and I already love it! Travel and photography are close to my heart. I, too, find a great deal of inspiration and wisdom in quotes. This is one of my favorites…

    “The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves. People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves.”

    Leonardo da Vinci

  25. says

    @Tony: Emotional risk is definitely the hardest type of risk to take, but the effects are also probably the most profound. The post that you wrote about this expressed this really eloquently. Good luck in Libya!

    @Lola: Thanks so much for your kind words about this post and the idea of a book. I’m glad we had a brief chance to talk more about this at TBEX. There is so much one learns from travel in the category of life lessons and personal development. We have lots of ideas…but need some time to think and regroup to do them right.

    @Jennifer: Sometimes it gets tiring to constantly expand one’s comfort zone and it’s easy to sit on previous accomplishments. This summer has reinforced for me that while I’m proud of what we’ve done until now, there is still so much room for improvement and growth.

    It’s interesting that you’re writing about pushing your boundaries at home in Texas. Dan is just writing something about that right now.

    Thanks for including this post in your weekly round-up on Live Richly!

    @Sam: In summary, we lived deliberately (i.e., small apartment, no car, no debt, etc.) for many years to save up for a round-the-world journey that we thought would take 12-18 months. Then we picked up some freelance writing and photography work at the beginning of the trip that made us realize that if we travel cheaply (i.e., in places most of our friends would never stay) and continue to find projects we can extend our journey. At the moment, we’re doing more customized photography project, selling some photography, website design and a slew of other things.

    As for retirement, we put money away during the 10-15 years we were working in the “real world” before this trip and plan to start contributing again in the near future.

    @anonri: Thanks for stopping by and I’m so glad you’re enjoying our website. I love the quote you shared from Leonardo da Vinci. Many times the real strength and character of people comes out in challenging times.

  26. says

    Hi Audrey, it is easy to sit in your comfort zone because it’s comfortable. :) I am planning to do some things locally that I haven’t done before and might be considered “not me.” I am looking forward to reading what Dan has to say on the subject.
    No problem, I linked to y’all because it was a thought provoking post.

  27. Agne says

    Great article! And so perfect in timing with my situation. I have been out of my comfort zone for the last 2 days – doing my visa run in Penang. The buses I drove with, the hostel I stayed in – it’s not what I am used to when I travel. But I did not have much choise, and I dealt with it. I focused on the good things – the food I ate was really good, the people I met were funny and very friendly, and I am gonna be home in the next 18 hours, it’s really not that long :)

  28. says

    @Agne: Although you’ve had quite an adventurous last few days, just think how much more “normal” all of those buses and hostels will be next time! And, doing these things usually do put you in contact with new and different people. But, it can be exhausting – I can understand wanting to get home soon. Safe travels!

  29. says

    I love that first quote! It has been my self-proclaimed duty over the last few months to push friends and family out of their comfort zones to try new things and on a larger scale… push them towards chasing their dreams. I think us as travelers/digital nomads have the obligation to shake things up, question comfort and give people a little push into the unknown. How much do you really known about yourself until you’re in that position? Cheers on another great article!

  30. says

    @Gareth: That top quote is fantastic, isn’t it? What I find is that if I invite friends and family along with me to do something they wouldn’t normally do, then they don’t seem to find it so scary and are more likely to do it again without me. It gets them out of routines and comfort zones in a more gentle way. But, it’s when they are on their own that they really realize what they can do that they never imagined.

  31. says

    This is the first time I’ve read anything on your blog and I can’t begin to tell you how spot on this is. Though I am relatively new to world travel and still have plenty of places to see, if it weren’t for a certain incident in early 2009, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing. I was finishing up school, had my dream job and had an awesome girlfriend. Then the US economy went in the dumpster. I lost my job, eventually lost the girl and was about a month and a half away from finishing school. The day after graduation I was on a plane to Dublin and trekked across Europe for 7 weeks. I’m still asking myself the same question, why did I come back?
    One of the biggest reasons for going was to challenge myself and see how resourceful I could be outside my comfort zone. I learned a lot about myself in those 7 weeks, and thankfully a side of me that needed to, died. I’m now currently working on starting my own internet business to fund my travel addictions and other needs. I wouldn’t have it any other way now and won’t stop til I get there. Perspective truly is a gift not many people get.

  32. says

    @Todd: Thanks for stopping by our blog and also leaving such a thoughtful comment. Really glad this piece resonated with you. You’re so right about perspective being a precious gift.

    Sometimes unpleasant life incidents push us to do something we never imagined, in a good way. Sounds like you thrived outside your comfort zone and found a new passion inside of you. Congratulations! Good luck in creating your online business and getting back on the road.

  33. says

    This is awesome. I so agree with asking yourself “What’s the Worst That Can Happen?”. I honestly think that the inability (or unwillingness?) to face that question is what holds most people back from taking a risk.

    Sometimes going there, and really thinking trough the worst outcome, can really help us face our fears. I use this all the time, when I find that I’m holding back from making a decision.

    In the past few months, we’ve taken a big leap and started working for ourselves through our blog and other projects. We’ve have been talking about this for what seems like forever, and somehow screwed up the courage to do it.

    For me, it meant leaving behind well-paying, but pretty unfulfilling career, to take a leap of faith into the unknown. I didn’t want to be 80 years old, and wondering why I never took the chance…

  34. says

    @Micki: We completely understand the idea of making a difficult decision now to avoid looking back in 20-30-40+ years and wondering “what if?” It is scary at the time, but as you said thinking about the worst income helps put things into perspective. Congrats on making this difficult decision to leave your job & travel!

  35. says

    Some good advice, I think point number 1 is the most important. Just knowing what your fears are is really the only place to start in facing them. If you don’t take the time or the energy to face them you’re lying to yourself and can’t hope to get over them. First steps admitting you have a problem. Great post to help take that first step on something..

  36. says

    @Peter: Thanks for sharing your own experiences. Fear has a way of creeping in so many ways. Sometimes it takes a while to recognize what it is and how it is affecting you. I’d say this is perhaps the most difficult step.

  37. says

    Fantastic insight, there is so much to travel then just “visiting a place”. You need to take risks, and embrace the unknown and also make sure you around people who think the same. Whenever I talk about going some place new, people are quick to say “I heard it’s not safe” or “why there?” etc. Stick to your gut if you have the true desire, everything will fall into place as it should.

    P.S love the writing and purpose of this blog. Great work!

  38. Imogen says

    It’s always encouraging to gain advice from other travelers.

    Personally I left home in England a few months ago to work in SE Asia for an NGO called SOLS 24/7(big emotional risk)and I’m hoping to travel on my own for a bit in May.

    As a 20 yr old female its all very daunting however,just like you said my confidence is building and I’m learning lots of new skills :)

    Great blog…wil definitely check out more of your posts!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] If you’ve ever had difficulty dealing with the notion of breaking free from society’s expectations of you, this post will give you an extra nudge in the right direction. Todd share’s his thoughts on the ‘real world’ and why settling down is not the only option, all while explaining how he made the realization one day that he was already living the life he wanted most. Blog: Uncornered Market Post: Living Outside Your Comfort Zone [...]

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