Beyond one’s comfort zone

April 13, 2023 10:13
Photo: Reuters

Every once in a while, we may find ourselves doing things that are quite clearly beyond our comfort zone. Such actions may confuse us. They may also thwart us and catch us off guard at our most vulnerable. Above all, doing something ‘different’ - not so much relative to others, but relative to our typical mean of personal conduct - can be quite discomforting. Consider, for instance, getting a singer to talk about Hobbesian political philosophy; or for an academic to host a popular radio series; or, indeed, having a beauty pageant contest transform itself into a Shakespeare poetry reading contest.

Yet such abrupt, disruptive - even - moves are not only part and parcel of our lives. I’d go a few steps further in arguing that they are necessary and healthy. Indeed, we should make it a rule to venture beyond our comfort zone. And we should welcome escapades with a level of frequency that is above merely “doing it occasionally, where and when there is no other choice”.

On surface, this makes no sense. In an age of specialisation, the conventional wisdom is that we should get really, really good at something - and keep at it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If our career choices make sense, let’s not overthink and overdo it. Why bother with ‘wasting time’ cultivating third, fourth, fifth sets of skills, when getting really, really good at something would get you very far economically and professionally?

The first response to this, is that there is perhaps more to life than narrowly defined success. For one, there is the joy to be reaped from a diverse range of experiences. Sometimes, novel experiences are pleasurable in their own right (e.g. having a caramel chocolate ice cream). Other times, they are pleasing because they are new (e.g. having the ice cream atop a skyscraper in face of gale-force winds). And, ultimately, there are goods that bring satisfaction precisely because of the arduous ordeal that we have to endure prior to accessing them. Consider, for instance, climbing up a steep mountain to consume a scoop of caramel chocolate ice cream at the top; the ice cream is likely to taste much ‘better’ (even if not sweeter) than if you were to consume it before embarking upon the hike. Increasing the diversity of experiences to which one is exposed, would also probably ratchet up the level of enjoyment one reaps from life! And this is precisely why firm adherents of the ‘YOLO’ (“You only live once”, for those of you who are less well-versed in youth parlance) philosophy would embrace exotic, extreme sports and endeavours, not just as a means of cultivating and growing themselves, but also for the thrill of having more enriched and plural lives at large.

We grow accustomed to what we take for granted, and this also in part explains the hedonistic treadmill, i.e. whatever gains we experience or make, our levels of happiness inevitably regress to the mean. I may make 100,000HKD in one day through writing a super-popular book that sells for millions of copies upon its publication; the bout of euphoria that ensues would last me three months, maybe four. Yet after that, I’d revert to the ‘mean’ - e.g. I’d be no happier than if I hadn’t sold the book and made 100,000HKD. Trying new, unfamiliar, and potentially jarring things is a possible recourse. After all, I wager it’d take much longer for me to ‘forget’ and process the joys of entering into a relationship (I have not) as compared with the ‘joy’ of seeing a piece of mine published. Novelty not only generates greater marginal utility, but also more enduring utility.

The second response, is that perhaps on a more psychological level, it is best that we are constantly kept on our toes. To be repeatedly exposed to something pleasurable - and only pleasurable in a familiar sense - is a surefire recipe for brewing complacency, stagnation, and numbing through paralysis. A philosopher that spends their entire life writing in the ivory tower, languishing and lamenting through abstract hyperboles, is unlikely to mature and grow as a thinker. Similarly, a practitioner who toils away and sees their limited horizons of praxis as all there is to the world at large, is equally likely to be ensnared by their own complacency. Both parties may think that they know it all, but the limitations inherent in their learning and knowledge generation processes, render their quests for genuine knowledge, freedom, and power fundamentally futile. Unless they force themselves to confront their ignorance, paucity of knowledge, or relative unfamiliarities through exposure to an external stimulus, these individuals would only grow too comfortable with where they are… and stay where there are.

Escaping one’s comfort zone is thus liberating. It liberates one from feeling and thinking that one knows and has it all. It reveals to one that there is still a long way to go before one gets to that mythical state of wholesome nirvana. Ultimately, it makes one’s life more real, through effectively repeatedly throwing one into the deep end… so on and so forth.

Finally, on a purely functionalist, instrumentalist level - the more diverse the range of experiences and subsequent skills developed are, the less likely it is for one to be replaced or deemed replaceable. The advent of artificial intelligence targets first and foremost individuals whose skills can be easily codified, described, and replicated through algorithms. A doctor who can sing Adele is far less replaceable than a doctor that just diagnoses and cures patients (still a very noble profession, no less!). And a doctor who can sing Adele whilst building warm ties and relations with their patients, is likely to be in even higher demand than the Adele-singing doctor with no people skills…

In short, diversify, because you never know whom, or what, you’re up against. And these are the three reasons to go beyond your comfort zone.

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Assistant Professor, HKU