You can find the idea of a comfort zone in such expressions as “that is outside my comfort zone” – but what a comfort zone is in general, or what yours is in particular, is not all that easy to define. Overall, we feel safe in listing what is outside our comfort zone, but have a hard job describing what is inside it. The task is more a matter of empirical pragmatism than rigid definition. You know when you are not comfortable with something, or when you suspect you will not be comfortable with it (although you can be mistaken). Daily routines and habits are the bedrock of the comfort zone for most people.
My memes at the head of this post are certainly overgeneralized, and I don’t always practice what I preach. But I am trying to make a point – about myself more than about others. I find that being settled into a comfortable situation is often a trap for me. If I succumb to comfort because it is easy, I cease taking risks. Risks are important to me at this stage in my life. By “risk” I mean seizing an opportunity where the outcome could be gain or loss – and the loss is not something you can just shrug off. But the potential gain is worth the risk of the loss. Dangerous game, I know. But that is my life these days. Whenever I feel comfortable for too long, alarm bells go off in my head. Comfort makes me feel that I am merely existing, rather than truly living.
Habits have their place, of course, but they can be overdone. When I am working on a book I tend to get into a groove because it is efficient. If I were to throw all my writing habits to the winds and just sit down and write when I felt like it, I would get zero accomplished. I love writing once I get into it, but getting started is a challenge. So, I build a rigid timetable and stick to it. In most other spheres of my life I have few habits. I get up when I wake up and go to sleep when I am tired. I cook and eat what I want, when I want. “Breakfast food,” for example, is a completely alien concept to me. I don’t often eat what you might call breakfast anyway, but when I do make a morning meal, it is whatever I fancy. It could be soup or curry or macaroni – whatever.
I worked as a university professor in the same department in the same university for 35 years, which could have meant getting into routines, but I resisted. I did not always teach on the same days of the week, nor at the same times, and I varied my offerings (as much as possible) from year to year. What is more, I never gave the same lecture twice, even though many of my courses had the same syllabus (more or less) from year to year.
My lecturers at Oxford wrote their lectures and read them (without taking questions), so that once they had a set of lectures written, they read them year after year after year – maybe once in a while making minor changes or corrections. Needless to say, I stopped going to lectures after my first year. Sleeping at home in the mornings was simpler than sleeping through lectures. Some of my colleagues at my university read their lectures, but most used notes which they used year upon year. As a young professor I prepared notes because I was not confident in my ability to structure lectures. But once I was on solid ground I ditched the notes and spoke from memory. Things got a little convoluted once in a while because I tend to wander when I am lecturing, but I always had a firm idea of the points I wanted to get across, and some idea of how I wanted to illustrate them. I varied my illustrations as much as I could because I find repeating myself in lectures tedious. If I am bored by my own lectures, I can hardly expect my students to be interested.
Here is my paradox for you. Is risk taking my comfort zone? That question simply points out the complexity of the word “comfort.” My simple answer is, no, because risk taking is far from comfortable. Living for a year or two at a time in a different country is not comfortable. For five years I have lived in countries where I am not very good at the language, and, so, always have to think before I speak. The one big advantage is that I do not have to pay attention to the prattle that surrounds me when I walk on the streets. On the down side, I can rarely hold a decent conversation with a local. By the time I am halfway decent at the language I am packing my bags for my next move. This situation is the opposite of comfort.
Next month I have planned a trip to Nepal and Turkey en route to Italy where I have some business to conduct, and at the moment I am not thrilled by the prospect. Sure, I planned the trip because I want to see those places, but I am never especially comfortable dragging a suitcase around airports and hotels. I enjoy much of the experience once I am on the road, but I am not in any sense comfortable. To a degree, that’s the point – not to fester in one place, but to push myself to do things that do not make me comfortable, but which are worth doing anyway.
My next question should be obvious. What about you? Are you truly living or just existing? I am not claiming some kind of moral high ground here. Maybe you are happy existing in your comfort zone. Good for you. But maybe you feel trapped within your comfort zone, and don’t know how to escape. Well . . . there I have no answers for you, but even coming to the realization can be a start.