“Because I said so,” was a common explanation I heard growing up. As was, “As long as you live under this roof you’ll live under my rules.” Whether it was making my bed or going to a dinner party none of my friends were going to, there was no negotiating with my mom. I frequently had to do things I didn’t want to do. That’s just how it was.
Life looked something like taking a math class I didn’t want to take “because it’s a pre-requisite,” going to piano class “because it is Wednesday,” and going to a school dance “because socializing is good for you.”
But things are different now. One of the biggest privileges of being a young adult (with nobody to take care of but myself) is that I have the freedom to say and do whatever I want. While I do have obligations and responsibilities like paying my student loans and going to work, they are minimal, and most of them are ones that I have chosen for myself.
How many times in 2015 did you choose to do something that you didn’t want to do? Not something like going to the dentist or doing your laundry, but something more profound.
I won’t pry, but I’ll tell you that my answer is “not often.”
In the five years since I’ve joined the real world, I’ve aggressively curated my life to be one that I’m comfortable living. It’s worth mentioning that while these years have certainly come with my share disappointment and hardship, I’m referring here to the aspects of my life I’m able to control. I found a job that makes me happy; I’ve cultivated a community of people who I appreciate and who appreciate me; I eat what I like; I exercise at my desired frequency; I dedicate my free time to activities I enjoy; I spend and don’t spend my money the way I deem appropriate; I have the conversations I want to have; I am selectively social; and I rarely go out of my way to do things I don’t want to do. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. In fact, this way of life has allowed me to get to know myself and what I value. Perhaps I am lucky or perhaps I am just lucky enough to find the silver linings.
Given this hyper-conscious way of living, I was surprised to realize that in the last month, I’ve been in multiple situations that make me uncomfortable. Voluntarily.
For example, at the beginning of the month, I had to give a speech to my entire office and their external guests. When I volunteered for the gig a few months prior, I did so considering only the speech-writing aspect (something I’m very comfortable with) and overlooking the speech-giving aspect (something that scares me half to death). In the hours leading up to my speech, I couldn’t think or eat. My heart had descended into my stomach. Despite being armed with a strongly written speech, I feared that walking up to the podium would be coupled with a sudden onset of amnesia or paralysis. The blend of anxiety, fear, and excitement was one that I hadn’t felt since the days of childhood piano recitals.
For another example, just a week later, I was at a ceremony sitting next to someone I haven’t spoken to in years. Distracting myself with my phone (something I’m comfortable with), I happened upon a tweet to test your algebra skills. Though I detest mental math, and math in general, I clicked the link and leaned over to this neighbor. “Want to try doing these together?” I asked. He obliged, and we started reading the first word problem. As the pang of stereotype-threat entered my brain, I almost immediately regretted my invitation to jointly tackle a type of math problem I purposely haven’t attempted in fifteen years (something that makes me uncomfortable), with a person I haven’t spoken to in five (something that scares me half to death). But there was no turning back.
The hours leading up to the speech and the split-second in which I offered up math problems — the moments I spent at the cusp of comfort and discomfort — are some of my biggest moments of growth in recent memory.
This makes me wonder, could the aforementioned “privilege” of curated comfort actually be doing me a disservice? Looking back, I have to admit that my mom’s “because I said so” policy was instrumental in making me the well-rounded individual I am today.
The speech was successfully delivered and the algebra problems were eventually solved. But more importantly, both experiences required me to use my brain in ways that I rarely choose to do. There was a thrill in processing something new and a delightful mystery in awaiting the outcome. Stretching past what was comfortable was a beautiful challenge, and once on the other side, I didn’t regret how it happened.
The nice thing about a comfort zone is that it doesn’t have to be fixed. It can expand as we find more opportunities to tiptoe past the bounds of our status quo. The hard part is pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in the first place.
While those of us who consider ourselves comfortable should also consider ourselves lucky, there is something to be said about being too comfortable. After a point, comfort can be just as debilitating as a lack thereof. I wish for you to be as comfortable as you wish to be. But in this new year, find ways to make yourself just slightly uncomfortable.
They say that life starts at the end of your comfort zone. For me, 2016 will start there as well. Here’s to finding new joy, new challenges, and new experiences outside the realms of what we already know.