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Why You Should Stop Leaving Your Comfort Zone
Comfort isn't really your enemy.
After my first ever wrestling match when I was 12 years old, I felt like I had gotten hit by a bus.
Though I’d only been thrown on my head, my body hurt everywhere. My legs were shaking. My heart was shattered.
I had gotten beaten so badly that I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t muster the energy to shed tears. I just sat there in a chair next to the mat thinking about what I had just experienced. Traumatizing isn’t the right word, but it’s the only word that comes to mind.
I never wanted to wrestle again. Wrestling was way outside of my comfort zone, and being out of my comfort zone hurt.
People obsess about “getting out of our comfort zones” because it’s a cool way to sound motivational, but that’s not what getting better is really about. You’re not supposed to live your life in discomfort, you’re supposed to expand the area of your comfort zone so that fewer situations make you uncomfortable.
Let’s talk about the complicated task of expanding your comfort zone without actually breaking yourself down.
What happens if you’re constantly uncomfortable?
When I was in my early 20s, I tried many different things.
I competed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu a lot, but I also tried performing comedy, a few times, I tried going to college, I tried traveling, I tried playing the guitar and the piano, I tried writing a novel, I tried to get on a reality TV show (after they contacted me), and I even tried podcasting with my sister for a while.
Everything that sounded kind of fun to me, I gave a shot.
It was an important experience for me, but it was kind of awful.
I was terrible at pretty much everything I did except for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and I couldn’t understand why.
The experience of having a lot of experiences taught me something very important:
Constant discomfort does not lead to growth. Constant discomfort leads to burnout and frustration.
The best athletes in the world, for example, are not comfortable despite the pressure they face. They thrive under pressure. They are comfortable under pressure because they have faced it so many times. Most people don’t perform well their first time facing great pressure.
This is a skill you develop. It’s like riding a bike or playing the flute.
Improving your skills is not about getting out of your comfort zone. Improving your skills is about getting a bigger comfort zone through consistent effort.
Your comfort zone is your friend.
Let’s go back to my wrestling story for a second and see how it turned out for me.
My first 2 years of wrestling were the most humbling years of my life.
My record during those first 2 years was 8 wins (4 each year, but several were by forfeit) paired with 42 losses. In my second year of wrestling, I had a record of 4–28.
I hated wrestling and I was never comfortable on the mat. I always felt like I was fighting everything.
I didn’t have the strength to execute the moves properly, I didn’t have the flexibility to defend takedowns effectively, and I didn’t have the grit and cardio to get through a 6-minute match. I was always afraid on the wrestling mat.
But over time and through repetition, wrestling stopped being so scary and I stopped being so bad. By my senior year of high school (6 years from when I started), I won more than twice as much as I lost.
By the time I started doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (a sport very similar to wrestling) at 18, I had years of competing and training hard under my belt. I grew quickly in Jiu-Jitsu because I had built a comfort zone in grappling arts for more than 6 years.
At 22, I won a world championship in Jiu-Jitsu at purple belt. Then, this year, I took 4th in one of the biggest grappling tournaments in North America. I made the top 8 in Europe.
To the outside observer, it probably looks like I’m constantly stepping out of my comfort zone to achieve things, but really I’m just making my comfort zone bigger.
In many ways, my entire grappling career since about 2015 has been in my comfort zone.
Don’t be that person who never leaves your comfort zone.
Optimal performance comes from gradually expanding your comfort zone.
However, your comfort zone can hold you back.
In training for Jiu-Jitsu, for example, I get out of my comfort zone a lot. I push my body to physical exhaustion in training. I put myself in situations where I will fail. I get submitted. I try new moves and strange movements in training that a lot of times don’t work.
But am I really out of my comfort zone when I do Jiu-Jitsu at all?
Yes and no.
Doing new moves makes me uncomfortable, but I’m still in my Jiu-Jitsu comfort zone. I’m uncomfortable in my comfort zone.
Think Inception, but for comfort zones.
One thing that really got me out of my comfort zone was when I started writing.
Writing is the opposite of Jiu-Jitsu.
When I started writing, it was completely different from everything I’d ever done. I knew I was out of my comfort zone because I felt like an imposter all the time.
However, I also remember what it was like to feel like an imposter as a 13-year-old chubby wrestler trying to learn a fireman’s carry. So, I leaned into this feeling. I just kept going and going, despite feeling out of my comfort zone.
And now? Publishing writing is in my comfort zone.
Now that I have expanded my comfort zone, I can play, similar to the way I play when I do Jiu-Jitsu.
Playtime is where growth really begins.
Do you want to be happy or do you want to have fun?
Maybe you want both.
Unfortunately, people are deeply complex, and for most of us, winning gold medals or making buckets of money isn’t going to make us happy. Success will probably make most of us depressed (at least, eventually), and we all have to learn how to deal with that.
Skill development comes from spending time in a place where you feel safe and can play. It’s hard to learn when you’re scared (it’s fight or flight, not fight, flight, or learn), and taking big steps out of your comfort zone is scary.
Success is about removing the guesswork and unpredictability from your craft. This is great for athletes, writers, or anyone else who’s trying to become good at what they do. Why would you gamble with your goals?
There’s a formula for victory, and while it’s not super fun, it’s effective.
Joy is a little different.
Joy (for me) comes from trying new things, whether it’s trying that new restaurant up the street, talking to some stranger who might become your best friend or girlfriend, or going to a foreign country and just trying to figure out how to order off the venue.
If you want a complete life, you need to learn to balance the goofy with the grind.
You need to focus and practice and stay safe to improve, but sometimes, you need to get out of your comfort zone, just to remember what it's like to be alive.
“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation” — Henry David Thoreau
This quote can mean many things, but most people assume it means that we all have to do scary things all the time, like skydiving, quitting our jobs, or asking strangers on the street out for coffee.
I don’t think that’s what it means. I think this quote very complex.
Many people are spending too much time in their comfort zone, and they’re really good at a few things. Other people are never in their comfort zones, and they never hone their skills.
I can become a really good writer if I just write all day or really good at Jiu-Jitsu if I just do Jiu-Jitsu all day. However, I won’t be a happy person if I don’t live my life completely, and in the long run, that will make me worse at everything I do.
The “quiet desperation” comes from not feeding your soul and not feeding your brain.
The “quiet desperation” comes from soul-brain imbalance.
Your brain wants skills your soul wants experiences and excitement, but your life wants balance.
Balance time spent in your comfort zone with time spent facing your fears.
It’s okay to be comfortable sometimes.