Stepping Outside Our Comfort Zone

Years ago, when the kids were much younger, our family used to take beach vacations with a close friend and her family. This friend and I shared a similar level of adversity to risk, and while the guys would take the kids to jump off cliffs or snorkel in caves, we would stay behind, congratulating each other on our affinity for the “zone”… the stretch of ocean closest to the beach, where the waves weren’t too high, there were no jellyfish or any other creatures, and we could just float the afternoon away.

The “zone” was perfect. As we often joked, we loved it precisely because “nothing ever happened in the zone.” In other words, we were safe. We didn’t have to think. We didn’t have to be on guard for any real or perceived dangers. We didn’t even have to worry about spilling our drinks, so peaceful was the water there. It was, by every definition, a comfort zone.

As humans, we are programmed to seek situations where we can minimize our stress and risk, to create our own comfort zones. For each of us, this mean something different, of course. For me, the comfort zone is all about a feeling of coziness (unless I am on a beach vacation, in which case see above). As an introvert, my comfort zone often has to do with staying in, not having to make small talk with people I don’t know, and wearing the closest thing to pajamas I can get away with. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of that, of course, and I can argue that it is just who I am, and how is that a bad thing?

The trouble with a comfort zone is that if you spend too much time there, it actually shrinks. Comfortable clothes go from jeans to sweats to actual pajamas. Not wanting to make small talk becomes never wanting to meet new people because of the effort it takes to get to know them and to share something of yourself. In time, new experiences become a risk, and what we categorize as a new experience grows to include anything that pushes or stretches us to be more than what we are now. Because we have so severely limited the stimulation in our lives, any stimulation starts to feel like too much. It is easier, safer, to stay in the “zone”.

In the 1995 movie French Kiss, Meg Ryan plays Kate, a woman whose fear of flying combined with her habitual comfort zone keep her from enjoying a trip to Paris with her fiancé. He takes the trip without her, meets someone new and breaks their engagement. She swallows her fear and flies to Paris to win him back. One thing leads to another and she eventually rejects him after coming to a powerful realization:

“I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to protect myself from exactly this situation. And you can’t do it. There’s no home safe enough, there’s no country nice enough, there’s no relationship secure enough, you’re just setting yourself up for an even bigger fall and having an incredibly boring time in the process.”

In other words, why not step outside the zone? The water is just fine… and you will be, too.

What Do You Need to Be Creative?

Years ago, I taught an Educational Psychology course for people who wanted to be elementary or high school teachers. One of my favorite activities was centered on creativity, and how to foster it in young learners. I put the students into small groups, and gave each group a large envelope filled with odds and ends from around my home and office – cotton balls, paper clips, magnets, straws, napkins, remnants of cloth, wire, etc., whatever I could find and could fit in the envelope.

Their directions? To create something functional, something that could solve a problem or do a job of some sort. They had the full class time to work and then to present what they had created. It was always great fun, with lots of silliness, ideas coming in fits and starts and then the hum of concentration as the groups settled on their projects and the creations began to take form.

The next day I asked them about the creative process. How did their groups manage to create their inventions? How did the creativity flow (or not) for them? What did they find they needed to be successful?

The answers were simple but insightful. The groups agreed that whether you are a child in a classroom, an artist in a studio, a writer at a desk, or a corporate employee in a cubicle, we all need the same things to be creative in our work:

1) Time – Creativity can’t really be rushed. In fact, a 2002 Harvard study of 177 employees at 7 different companies showed that time pressure negatively affects creative thinking. If you want to tap into your innate creativity, you have to allow yourself the time to do it!

2) Persistence – Those who wait until they ‘feel’ creative before working rarely are prolific. Rather than waiting for the muse to show up, it is us who need to show up and start, knowing that just the act of being there will eventually kick-start the creative process.

3) Space – In this case, this does not necessarily mean physical space, though that’s nice to have, too. But what we really need to be creative is the mental space to make mistakes, to create something less than perfect, or in fact, something really bad — and still feel supported enough to keep trying. After the groups worked through all their ‘dumb’ ideas, they said, that’s when they came to the idea that would work for their projects!

My point in sharing this is that we all deserve these three gifts, too. All of us are creative by nature, and if we are having trouble accessing that piece of ourselves, we probably just need to give ourselves the time, persistence, and space we need to be our best creative selves.

Small Steps Toward a Creative New Year

Something about the New Year encourages us to take stock of our lives, and we think of resolutions that will take us closer to the lives we wish we were living. Sometimes it is the practical (I will organize my kitchen cabinets or else!) or the physical (Yoga every evening, no more snacks!). But no matter what the motivation seems to be, underneath it all, each promise we make to ourselves, each goal we set, is designed to bring us closer to whom we really are.

We are inherently creative beings, and for that reason, many of us hold a vision for our lives that includes a more creative version of ourselves. We want to be that someone who paints in their free time, has a novel going on the side, or spends hours crafting handmade gifts on the weekends. But creative resolutions can be tinged with a sort of desperation as the years go by, because let’s face it, rarely are they accomplished in their entirety. Rather we begin with great intentions, can’t keep up, and in the end are right back in the same spot the following January.

This year, I am trying a different approach. American essayist John Burroughs once said, “The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.” Knowing I will not be able to become creative in all the areas I personally would like to improve (cooking, painting, knitting, sewing, gardening, etc.), I’ve decided to begin by building small habits, which I hope will lead to small (and eventually greater) victories.

I know myself better by now, too. Will I realistically go from take-out and thrown together after work pseudo-meals like apple slices and popcorn to a menu from the pages of a Gwyneth Paltrow cookbook? No. But can I do one thing better? Can I try to do the food prep for the week on a Sunday afternoon so I have more time to cook creatively during the week? Or just make a game of trying one new recipe a week? Instead of trying to craft handmade everything for everyone, can I choose one or two things I’d like to make or learn to do for fun, and then gift the results if I choose to?

You see how this will go. Redo the whole garden? How about building the habit of watering regularly? Or maybe planting one new bed? Write a novel? How about a letter? Or a blog post? (You are reading the result of one of the new habits I am trying to cultivate!)

Happily, creativity begets creativity, and each small step we take in the direction (the creation) of our vision, the easier the next steps will be and the more creative our daily lives will become.