Is Your Comfort Zone an Enemy or a Friend?
Should you regularly ignore or override your sense of comfort, as many commentators advise introverts?
Countless introverts have experienced a harangue from a parent, teacher or business coach along these lines: Don’t be such a wimp! You’ve got to put yourself out there/learn public speaking/make cold calls/become more popular. You don’t want to? You don’t enjoy it? You’d rather stay home and read? Too bad! Life isn’t meant to be comfortable.
Is there anything at all valid in such advice? Or in the somewhat kinder version: You’re selling yourself short if you don’t try things you don’t like. How can you know you wouldn’t enjoy ballroom dancing/networking meetings/running for office unless you give it a good solid try? Come on, you know I only want the best for you.
After immersing myself in the pros and cons of introverts respecting their comfort zone – familiar circumstances where they feel safe and confident – I have a number of observations and opinions to share.
Four Points of Conventional Comfort-Zone Advice
1. Anyone who stays in their comfort zone is or risks becoming a couch potato: myth.
This perspective assumes that introverts’ natural, default condition is mindless inactivity. Although many introverts would rather stay at home than chitchat with strangers at a noisy bar, staying at home might include running 10 miles, chopping wood or gardening. (Did you know gardening burns on average 300 calories an hour – more than walking, yoga or playing golf?) Or maybe their comfort zone includes studying Sanskrit, playing lightning chess or composing hip-hop lyrics, none of which fit with being a couch potato.
2. It takes courage to go outside one’s comfort zone: partial myth.
Sometimes that’s true. I’m thinking of an educational administrator who once told me she was taking flying lessons, which scared her, to experience what it might be like for first-generation college students feeling lost and out of place on her campus. However, it can also take bravery to stay within your comfort zone if social pressures dictate that you join group activities that you heartily dislike. Your comfort zone can include a road less traveled, one perhaps even looked down on by those around you.
3. Staying in your comfort zone brings on stagnation: myth.
I once shared a house with a fiber artist who adored making her home a sanctuary. Applying her artistic vision to home decorating, she rearranged the furniture in her living room and bedroom every two or three months. Constant change, rather than same-old, same-old, characterized her comfort zone. Likewise, many people who love to learn relish new challenges, again the opposite of stagnation.
4. To succeed, you must follow routes laid down by experts, regardless of your comfort zone: myth.
I heard this a lot from marketing gurus when I worked in that field: Here’s what I did to succeed, therefore that’s what you must do also. A career coach who heard I specialized in marketing for introverts once wanted to hire me to persuade her introverted clients to do informational interviews, which in her eyes were absolutely necessary to land a job of one’s dreams. Informational interviews involve persuading someone in the kind of job one hoped to have to answer questions about their field over breakfast or lunch, without being paid.
The coach got shocked when I refused to help her. “In a million years I wouldn’t do informational interviewing, either as a job seeker or as the expert,” I told her. “Being an introvert, I dislike asking favors or doing them. I’ve networked my way to great connections in other ways that feel more comfortable to me.” Almost always there are introvert-friendly alternatives to success advice that one-size-fits-all pontificators overlook.
With all that said, there are obviously times when it’s prudent or wise for us to disregard the thought, “I really don’t want to.” For instance, if you hate math, tax obligations may require that you somehow venture into the land of numbers. And unlikely as it sounds, suppose you hate the idea of a blind date, but your best friend, a smart matchmaker, really has rustled up a soulmate for you to meet.
Maybe introverts should just cautiously try new things at a rate and in a context that feels manageable. It helps greatly when that’s a choice rather than something you’re shamed into. When you respect yourself, life can happily offer both familiarity and surprises.
The last five years (which coincide with the first five years of retirement), I’ve done several out-of-zone things; started and ran a meetup group that had 200+ members, done a couple of 90-day cold shower regimens (but not in winter), as well as several other physical challenges. Since I can’t play golf or tennis, don’t want to play pickleball or fish, and can’t see hanging out at McDonald’s in the morning (I doubt folks like them would welcome me anyway), trying pretty much anything new takes me out of my zone.
Next up-- poetry, preferably metrical, ideally with a rhyming scheme. It’s the best way I know of to invest a lot of energy in a verbal exercise with no expectation of financial remuneration.