7 Things I learned from a Year of Stepping Outside of my Comfort Zone

Eleven months ago I had a silly little idea. An idea to try a few new things. An idea to embrace my uncomfortable zone. And before I even realized what was happening, this silly little project managed to push me to experience some things that I never, never would have imagined myself doing otherwise. I can definitely say that because of this experiment, 2014 was a remarkable year.

These are just a few things I learned in the process:

1. Just get the ball rolling. 

Although I’m a big believer in planning, it’s easy to let all that planning get in the way of actually getting started. When I conceived of the idea of trying something new, every day, for 28 consecutive days; I knew right away that it would be important to just jump in before I talked myself out of the whole idea. And since the only way I could really fail is through giving up or quitting, I really didn’t have a whole lot to lose. The worst that could happen (at least early on when I was a little less adventurous), was that I’d just embarrass myself in front of a bunch of random strangers. Heck, I already do that on most days anyway.


2. Don’t resist changes to your plan.

Since I knew it was possible that I’d feel differently about my project after a couple of weeks; preparing a detailed daily plan, four weeks in advance, would have been difficult. A few things I definitely booked into my schedule as early as possible, but had I made and stuck to a rigid 28-day plan, I would have been far less adventurous in week three and four than I actually was. There is no way that close to a year ago I would have been able to predict that I was capable of trying flying trapeze, a burlesque dance class, or surfing. No. Freaking. Way.


3. Build on small achievements.

My first week consisted of activities such as geocaching, attending a convention, photographing a Chinese New Year’s celebration, and eating a slice of blue velvet cake. Now, pretty much any time I have to interact with strangers in unfamiliar places, I’m uncomfortable. But these weren’t particularly scary situations, even for me. However, I think I would have given up immediately if my first activity had been, say, improv class. So instead, I started out by gently nudging myself, and then increased that pressure in accordance with time and my increasing confidence level.


4. Don’t Underestimate Your Capabilities

Never let anyone define what you are capable of by using parameters that don’t apply to you.  —– Chuck Close

That quotation by artist Chuck Close not only applies to the input you get from the people around you, it also applies to the messages you tell yourself. Don’t let anything convince you that you can’t now, nor will you ever be able to accomplish something. Start small, challenge yourself, and do your best to banish that unruly voice from your brain. It’s hard enough having to defend yourself against the destructive people of the world, don’t use up the rest of your energy combating yourself as well.

5. You will have temporary setbacks. 

Nothing keeps going straight up forever (just ask anyone with money in the stock market in 2008). Likewise, right when everything seems to be going just terrifically, something will invariably appear to give you a good old-fashioned smack-down.

Still riding high on the coattails of my flying trapeze success (as in, I jumped off a big platform and didn’t maim myself), I was prepared to have an easy time with improv class the next evening… despite the fact that socially-related things are my very worst skill. By like, a lot. Unsurprisingly, it turned out I was pretty disastrous. All the positive, happy thinking in the world didn’t magically fix my sudden, near panic-inducing performance/social anxiety once things got underway. Whoopsie.

I commend myself for giving it a shot, and it certainly doesn’t negate my overall progress, but I was definitely a bit in over-my-head with that one. Because this was still such an obvious weak point of mine near the end of 2014, I took some time over the month of December to concentrate on my people skills. I purchased a really excellent, 30-day online course on mastering your people skills, which I’ve been working my way through with some small-but-encouraging success. I imagine that I’m going to be working on this throughout most of 2015, but considering everything else I’ve put myself through, this really feels doable over the long-term.


6. Your imperfections make you a more interesting person.

One of the problems with anxiety is that you fear judgement. Putting yourself in new situations puts you at risk for misunderstandings, making mistakes, and looking like a complete amateur (which technically, you are). And although you might intellectually understand that other people don’t really care how good or bad you are at, for instance, an afternoon of archery; there’s still that nagging suspicion that the whole class is going to go home and discuss, in detail, about how many targets you missed and what exactly you did wrong in life to lead you to that miserable performance. Obviously that’s ridiculous.

I don’t think you can necessarily prevent your mind from thinking those thoughts in the first place. Instead, I think it’s more useful to try to crowd-out (and subsequently replace) the noise with better, more reality-based thoughts; reminding yourself of this when necessary.

Let’s take my surf experience as an example. Which of the two people would you rather associate with:

Person A – Takes a surf lesson for the first time ever, after having only been in the ocean a couple times in her life. It turns out that she’s a surfing genius, got up on her board on her first try, never accidentally fell off into the ocean, and had near-perfect balance the whole time. She’s upset that she didn’t think to bring someone along to take pictures, because it would have made an excellent photo spread to share with everyone on Facebook.

Person B – Takes a surf lesson for the first time ever, after having only been in the ocean a couple times in her life. In fact, she’s mildly fearful of the water. She only briefly manages to get up in a sort of crouching position on the board, after falling into the water numerous times. She also manages to break her surfboard part-way through the lesson, which apparently was the first time that’d ever happened with one of the beginner students. She then laughs about the incident on the way back from the beach and proceeds to book another lesson.

I mean, I’m sure Person A is a fine person. And if everything she touches turns to magic, I certainly don’t think she should hold herself back. But Person B, by virtue of not being continually perfect, is practiced with a number of other skills that are more beneficial than the appearance of perfection, namely; resilience, the ability to identify and examine their weaknesses, humility, empathy, having a wide range of experiences to talk about, and dealing with failure. Don’t underestimate the value of these qualities. They’re not only good for Person B, they’re good for the people Person B associates with (and they make for far more entertaining stories, too).


7. There will always be fear. Keep pushing forward.

I suppose there must be people in the world who rarely feel fear, but I certainly am not one of those people. And I doubt most people are. The goal ultimately isn’t to eliminate fear (frankly, I’d prefer to hang on to that impulse that warns me when I’m about to do something monumentally stupid), but to instead keep it from ruling the forward motion in your life. Repetition and immersion therapy helps a lot in this regard, as does properly building up your confidence by not going so far out of your boundaries that it scares-you-straight.

When I was much much younger, I actively participated in ballet, violin, and piano. I was in performances numerous times per year, and auditions were even more brutal for me, often resulting in shaky hands and unexpected stray notes that never happened when I was by myself in the comfort of my own home. But I pushed on anyway, because for me, being fearful and nervous pervaded most of my childhood. My choices were essentially to be fearful, keep going, and ignore it the best I could; or to just stick to my normal, everyday level of nervousness, while also feeling like a guilty loser for not bothering to try at all. Yeah, that certainly wasn’t appealing.

And all these years later? I still have problems with certain situations, and I imagine I’m going to be fighting this on one level or another… forever. But where I am now is certainly an improvement over where I used to be, and I expect to continually grow into the future. Over time, I’ve become better at identifying, in advance, under what circumstances I can expect my fear level to skyrocket. This allows me to be able to better prepare myself before the unexpected stops me in my tracks. Feeling fear won’t kill me, but letting my entire life slow to a standstill because of it very well might.

But you know what really scares me the most? Completely giving up. It’s unlikely that I’ll achieve everything I ever dreamed about, and in fact, I rather hope I don’t. But as long as I’m making progress – in my life, in my emotions, in my creative world of imagination – I feel like I can consider myself a success.

Which also means, at least for the moment, I have a lot to be excited about.




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