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The Case For Staying In Your Comfort Zone

At what point does challenging yourself become unnecessary stress?

The Case For Staying In Your Comfort Zone
[Photo: Flickr user Jeff]

I’m accident-prone and bad at small talk, but against my gut feelings, I tried working as a fine-dining restaurant server a few years ago.

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At that gig, my strengths were mainly rolling napkins with silverware–definitely not in balancing four hot plates of food along my arms to well-dressed couples on anniversary dates. In hindsight–and in the eyes my guests, coworkers, and managers–I should have stayed within my “comfort zone” and out of the bistro restaurant business.

But is avoiding our weaknesses and playing up our strengths the healthiest way to live?

“If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it,” writes Meghan Daum in her new book, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. Her words have made the rounds from Psychology Today and PsychCentral, to New York Magazine. The advice contradicts the skill-building wisdom we’ve heard repeated again and again: Your comfort zone is a quicksand pit, and outside of it lies inspiration and challenge.

Where is the line between pushing yourself, and needlessly beating your head against a wall? The pros and cons of staying where it’s comfortable:

You’ll become a better version of yourself. Daum calls our safe spaces “as useful and productive as a well-oiled industrial zone,” where we can hone our natural abilities deeply. Specializing in what you’re already good at means finding that flow-state more easily.

But you’ll limit that version to a specialty. This is a risk for young people, especially: Staying within natural abilities means specializing to a fault. Whether you’re aiming to become a world-class piano virtuoso, comic book artist, or coding genius, you’ll log a lot of practice hours (maybe not 10,000 hours, exactly, but still the majority of your time), leaving little space for skills that could help you pivot later in your career.

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You’ll live a more “authentic” life. “Many of us are busy escaping from the deficits of our personality by trying to be something we’re not,” author Debbie Mandel told Stephanie Vozza in August. I know that I’ll never be a stockbroker, because those skills are so far outside of my own comfort zone.

But you could count yourself out. “If you say you’re a specific kind of person, you’re excusing yourself from acting or seeing the views from opposing sides,” Vivian Giang wrote last week, on the topic of authenticity. I’m never going to be on Wall Street, but I could stand to budget my own money better. If you stay too true to yourself, you might find that your natural state is just lazy.

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About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.

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