When Is the Last Time You Left Your Comfort Zone?

Get comfortable under a warm blanket on the sofa with a cup of tea, then take the next 12 minutes to read about how important it is for you to get out of your comfort zone. I am no authority on this topic, and yet I am very familiar with it. I crave my soft safe spot on the sofa with my iPad. When plans outside of my house get cancelled, I get a rush of “cancel pleasure.” It is that unexpected gift of time and immediate release of the pressure to engage. If I sound like a recluse or hermit, I am not. I love spending time with people, most especially my family and close friends. It is just that I draw my energy from my solitary space, as most introverts do. The Covid isolation gave me permission to socially distance without guilt or FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Somehow knowing if nobody can go out for lunches or parties or tennis, then me not seeing people (or being invisible) was perfectly acceptable. 

This gravitational pull to just stay in my cozy spot is not great. For starters, connecting with others is important for mental health. If we learned anything from Covid it is how much we missed things like hugs, smiles, and being in the physical space with other human beings. Luckily, technology helped us connect in positive ways we never imagined screen time would. Zooms, group texting, social media platforms all aided in maintaining and even building connections with others. However, it could not fully replace getting out there experiencing the world together. 

Perhaps while sheltering in place you were doing the following: mastering a new language, planting a new garden, crafting, puzzle solving, learning to cook elaborate recipes, or even writing a book. Not me. Oddly, I did not blog or do much writing at all. I read and binge watched different series. The most significant change for me in 2020 was relocating from the suburbs to the country. Try moving during an epidemic; no neighbors stopping by unannounced to welcome us with pies and chit chat (no complaints here). I moved from one cozy comfort spot to another, with even more space to distance myself from others (unless you count two kids home from college, 2 dogs, 2 cats, 1 horse, and my fellow empty nester). Then things opened up and we all started coming out of our houses like insects and birds on a clear morning after a heavy rain. Schools, tennis, restaurants, gatherings, traveling, visiting with others. As much as I was content in my cocoon, returning to activities with people was a surprising delight. I did not realize how much I missed laughing with friends or eating a meal inside a restaurant. 

I am reminded of two books that planted seeds of this idea in me over the last few years. Reading the books two years apart from each other reinforced the idea. It is like when someone tells you that you look great in bright pink, but you buy one pink shirt, wear it a couple times and then go back to buying solid black or gray clothes. Then time goes by and you hear a different voice telling you pink is your color. You pause and consider the message you are hearing (again) from a different source. So maybe you add in a little more pink to your wardrobe (among all the black and gray). The interesting thing is that when you were a young kid, you loved pink. And purple and green…you took more chances, and did not safely stay in a comfort zone of black or gray jumpers. What is it about growing older that makes some people withdraw to their safe space of comfort? Not all people, just some. So if you fall into this group or know someone who does, this message is for you. “Get out of your comfort zone.”

Two compelling points moved me off the sofa: 1. Being happy, and 2. Having a healthy brain. Whether it is a message coming from a respected physician who has studied how the brain works extensively or a journalist who tries all sorts of things in pursuit of happiness in life, their work intersected on this one point: try something out of your comfort zone. Or as my dad used to say, “Go for it!”

One was a book written by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, titled “Keep Sharp: Build A Better Brain at Any Age.” The other book was called “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin.  I read Dr. Gupta’s book while in isolation. I had heard him interviewed and got curious about things I could do to “keep sharp.” The book had so many great take-aways. What made the most impact on me was Chapter 5, The Power of Purpose, Learning, and Discovery. I read about brain resiliency, and how we can prevent cognitive decline by participating in stimulating activities and enriched life experiences to build our cognitive reserve.

“It can simply be about learning new skills, such as speaking a foreign language, learning how to cook or paint, or taking up a new musical instrument…Use your mind in a manner that gets you out of your comfort zone.”

I read this book in the latter part of 2020. I kicked myself for not learning to play the piano or speak Italian. It got me thinking though. In early 2021 I decided it was time to stop watching Gilmore Girls or Bridgerton, and use my mind that might nudge me out of my comfort zone. Around that same time I was looking through the books on my shelf and came across the thick little square book about Gretchen Rubin’s yearlong pursuit of happiness. I had read it three years before. I pulled it off the shelf and thumbed through it.

The title is actually “The Happiness Project, Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.” Quite a long title for such a little book (would be great in the game of charades). It sold over two million copies, and the Tenth Anniversary Edition came out in 2018. I read it in January 2018, the “Getting Started” introduction hooked me. Month after month she embarked on finding happiness in a different facet of her life (i.e January was Energy, February was love, March was work…). Her thorough research, her sense of humor, and her willingness to try almost anything made it fun to read and even inspiring to try to implement some things myself.

When I read what she wrote about in March, I was surprised that it resonated with me. The focus was work. As a former teacher and a stay at home mom, I mistakenly assumed that the chapter on “work” would be one I would skim through, not applicable to my life. I am so glad I did not skip it. This blog would not exist. It was in that chapter that my fire was lit. She wrote that her search revealed that challenge and novelty are key to happiness. Do new things. Launch a blog. 

The very next month my husband and I decided to look for an aussiedoodle puppy. Our friends had the cutest aussiedoodle. So after some extensive searching we found a breeder. My husband really wanted two puppies. I said that if we were embarking on a two aussiedoodle journey, then I was going to have to write about it. Gretchen Ruben’s book came to mind. Why not blog? Why not me? June of 2018 the GrizzlyBearMa blog site was created. I challenged myself to post every day for one whole year. Not only did raising two adorable puppies make me happy, but writing on my blog site made me happy and kicked me way out of the ballpark of my comfort zone. Putting myself out there was a bit scary, but with some positive feedback, and finding my groove, I grew to love it. Dr Sanjay Gupta had also said that is was important to find things that put you in the “flow”. Writing is that for me.

Fast forward to today. After the blog had a long hiatus, with a couple update posts, it is back. I turned a corner last summer and got a new burst of energy and enthusiasm for writing again. In the August post I shared that I am writing a book. Who is this person? As I think about the two books I referenced, I am trying to recall times in my life when I stepped out of my comfort zone (even when things did not pan out). 

Acted in after school drama class then chased a dream of making it on the big stage by going into San Francisco for musical theater classes at ACT (fun while the dream lasted…)

Tried out for cheerleader again and again (never made it).

Ran for student government (did not get elected).

Moved across the country (again and again)

Signed up for a Team in Training triathlon when I could not even run a mile and did not own a road bike. Then asked people for money to support the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. (Finished it! Toughest day of my life).

Took horseback riding lessons in Texas to help overcome my fear of horses (it helped).

I hadn’t picked up a racquet in years, was new to town, and joined a tennis team of complete strangers (still playing and loving it)

Enrolled in a creative writing class 15 years ago (still writing and loving it)

Built a chicken coop for 16 chickens, rescued a horse, and learned to drive a Bad Boy Zero turn mower (see the Heart Pasture picture)

So think, what have you done to stick your toe outside your comfort zone? It may help to think back to your childhood years…did you try out for the school talent show? Did you take Karate? Did you join a club in high school that did things you had not learned before? When is the last time you “actively pursued new knowledge?”

That is precisely the question I heard Kelly Corrigan mention the other day on her podcast Kelly Corrigan Wonders.  She and her guest Dr. Natalie Nixon, author of Strategic Design Thinking and The Creativity Leap discussed the importance of taking on new forms of play. She said, “Be a clumsy student of something.” She gave an example that she, the writer, was taking a portrait drawing class. Their conversation was full of so much great stuff, go listen to it on your next walk or drive. The episode is called “Inspiration for the Creative Life.”

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/kelly-corrigan-wonders/id1532951390?i=1000594894241

I love when life collides beautifully like this. I wrote most of this piece before I got the chance to listen to this episode. And just look at that, Kelly is also saying to get out of your comfort zone.

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