This post, if you’ve been following along, was intended to be a reflection re: my first month as a true digital nomad, Mexico City, and the subsequent move to Bogota this past weekend. But somewhere between painstakingly managing to get the previous post published last week and dragging myself to the Bogota City orientation Monday evening at our co-working space, it hit me—not for the first time but perhaps the hardest thus far—I’m absolutely terrified.
In November 2016, I stepped away from my role in tech and dedicated myself fully to following my dream. 2017 for me will be an international nomadic existence, traveling the globe as I launch a large-scale research project investigating the state of innovation during this beautiful, complex time in which we live. With the infrastructure of the Remote Year program, I'll be living in a different city around the world every month for the next year, with eighty other "digital nomads." Unlike other major life and career decisions I've made in the past, the decision to pursue this path came without weeks of worried consultation with colleagues, mentors, friends. The call to leave my "successful," stable life behind for the unknown hit me like a ton of bricks—and for maybe the first time in my life, my intuition lead my pragmatism to trust that all the logistics, opportunity costs, and benefits would culminate in the greatest choice of my life. (Also the scariest.)
After my first taste of Bogota, a Sunday stroll down the main drag, which the city closes down every weekend for the endless fitness junkies that call this place home (so much fluorescent spandex), I headed back to my apartment and proceeded to fully implode.
Fear of failure. Self-doubt. Regret. Guilt. Nostalgia… I missed my old life—a steady paycheck from my gainful, meaningful, challenging position in the heart of the most sought-after innovation org at a major Blue Chip company in Silicon Valley, a couple uncluttered rooms of my own on the first floor of a beautiful Victorian house in downtown San Jose, Saturday morning drives in my Jeep Wrangler out to the Pacific Coast Highway—top down and tunes loud… Oh, and that (miniature) claw-foot bathtub that I sank into on Friday evenings with a book and some piano music trickling in from the iMac on my big oak desk in my home office.
And now, just a month into a year (hopefully more) of this endeavor, I was shutting down. Something wasn’t clicking. The adventure adrenaline was wearing off. The distraction of getting to know eighty new people and new cities was settling into something more normal. The romance of running like hell after the things I’d always dreamed about, but which felt too big, too fun, too risky to ever earnestly pursue evaporated into pure, unadulterated fear. We’re talking full breakdown mode.
I curled up on “my” bed in Bogota, wondering what the hell I’d done. I’d burnt it all down. Got rid of my possessions, my apartment, my main source of income. I longed for my comfort zone. The problem was that the familiarity I wanted no longer existed. The irony is that’s exactly what I hoped would happen; that’s exactly why I chose this path.
So why, I wondered, did I want so badly to retreat? What was it about that comfortable space in my past that seemed so pacifying in the midst of all this angst? And, most importantly, how the hell was I going to stop feeling awful and get back to enjoying this incredible experience?
In retrospect, I was dancing with my “Danger Zone.” To understand what that means, I dug into the science of comfort zones.
COMFORT ZONE: Dirty Word or Resting Place?
Maybe this is not your take on it, but I’d always thought of a “comfort zone” as a place where the best of me—my drive, my creativity, and my potential—went to die, or at least to take a really long nap. Turns out this is a pretty unilateral view of the concept.
The term has several definitions; I like this one from Wikipedia: A comfort zone is a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress. In this zone, a steady level of performance is possible.
The concept allegedly originated as a reference to a temperature range that was not too hot or too cold—comfortable. In actuality, we have mice to thank for the more widely accepted origin of comfort zones, which stems from the results of an experiment conducted in 1908 by two psychologists named Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson (who I guess you could argue deserve a little more credit than the mice..).
Yerkes and Dodson investigated the impact of stressed states on performance. In the course of their experiment, which produced what is now known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, they noticed a few things:
- When the mice were not stressed, the behaved normally, existing in what we call the “Comfort Zone.”
- Arousing anxiety levels for the mice showed increased performance from the animals, but only to a point. From this Yerkes and Dodson defined a state aptly termed “Optimal Anxiety,” wherein slightly elevated stress levels produce a jump in productivity. You may know this space as the “Growth Zone,” the “Expanded Comfort Zone,” or the “Learning Zone.”
- There is a point where optimal anxiety rapidly turns sour—if stress levels get too high, performance tanks. Many sources refer to this state as being in the “Danger Zone.”
Those familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may recall that key to our establishment of comfort zones is a feeling of safety which satisfies our reptilian brain and allows our minds to function at a higher level of cognition. As I dove a little deeper into my research (sending my computer into cardiac arrest with an absurd number of open browser tabs), I wound up finding a number of relationships between comfort zones, fear of failure, procrastination, anxiety, growth mindset, impulsiveness, neuroplasticity, resilience, core motivators, social learning theory, and behavioral economics (to name a few)—but that is far too much to try to address in one blog post.. So I’ll stick to some gems that amplify a few important reminders that I think are going to help me manage when I get stuck or avoid my comfort zone for too long, forget to rest, or enjoy the growth zone so completely that I lean in a little too far and wind up in a danger zone situation.
ESCAPING THE DANGER ZONE
So how do we best leverage the notion of comfort zones and optimal anxiety to create a headspace that is healthy and productive? I have a hunch that the solution may lie in moderation and balance… And in taking a deep breath when you wander into your danger zone, acknowledging that’s what’s going on, and having a plan that works for you to temporarily bring yourself back to a resting place in your comfort zone.
If you’ve made it this far, dear reader, you deserve a prize. This is a wicked long post but I’m going to finish what I started; we’re almost there—I promise.
I’m no expert, but I wanted to offer a strategy I began to use a few years ago, following a similar brush with my danger zone when I relocated to Silicon Valley from Boston, without knowing a soul in my new hometown. I did something I think a lot of us do when we’re overwhelmed—I made a list of things that might help me.
My list for “Escaping the Danger Zone” broke out into four main categories:
- The low-hanging fruit on the “to-do” list—sometimes this included things like “eat lunch,” “shower,” “put gas in the car,” and so on—just easy tasks that I could cross off the list to get a couple dopamine hits and some momentum to escape fear’s gripping paralysis
- Activities I thoroughly enjoyed that had a low barrier to entry (5 mins or less to get into them) that would give me a burst of happiness or gratitude or creativity
- Tasks I had to face but didn’t want to or didn’t know where to start—the ones that sit in the back of your mind and gnaw away at you slowly as they become bigger than they actually are—some of these are the types of things that would fall into the “adulting” category… The key was to start and realize that if I proceeded one bite at a time, I could usually eat the proverbial elephant
- Outrageous, foreign, or just new activities I wanted to try that I had always been afraid of doing or avoided because they logically took a backseat to other “real priorities” (or, as I’ve come to realize, to time spent stressing about “real priorities”)
This may have been my first really tangible attempt at capturing a plan for balance/resilience, though I had no idea that’s what I was doing. At the time, I was just trying to survive the shock of leaving behind the life I’d built in Boston. I was just trying to cope with the feeling that came with forsaking all things familiar in exchange for the unrecognizably foreign. And I was barely hanging on. But here’s the thing. After I cried in my room for a full ten minutes, terrified and deeply alone as I stood toe-to-toe with some hefty demons, I made a silly list and then had the most exhilarating feeling I’d ever experienced—autonomy, independence, capability, and a strange sense of freedom from failure… because the only way to truly fail would have been to curl up in a ball and refuse to try.
Something changed in me that day. Slowly, in fleeting moments and flashes, I began to crave the curveballs life had to offer. And when I got stuck wallowing in self-doubt or paralyzed by fear, I set out to create a new relationship with fear… one where I used it to my advantage in unusual, seemingly irrelevant ways. I would find an activity I could sign up for in minutes that I was wildly scared of doing and then I’d hold myself to doing it. The best example is probably sky-diving (I really hate heights). Others included things like learning to fly a plane, going after my motorcycle license, learning to hang-glide, diving with great white sharks—the list goes on but I digress.
For me, at times, embracing fear in a very straightforward manner as a way to get myself to react differently to more “serious” fear, fear of failure, that hit me in my professional and personal life—as insane as it sounds—worked to a certain degree. Not always, not permanently, but sometimes. And it fundamentally changed my relationship with fear.
On the topic of changing our relationship with failure, Carolyn Gregoire offers a quote from John Gardner’s Self-Renewal in her Huffpost article, where he reminds us that “we pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure—all your life.” In my last post, I shared some tactics I use to keep mapping and expanding my individual “renaissance.” I believe the sentiment is critical if I want to continue to make learning in a purposed manner a priority, because failure is integral to learning.
The lesson that eventually landed for me, just this past November, is one that I believe is deeply rooted in my longstanding dance with the same emotions I experienced last weekend in Bogota. Looking at myself and my life, it occurs to me that I am most uncomfortable when I’m too comfortable. That’s when I get stuck. That’s my biggest fear. That’s my most destabilizing imbalance.
The day I decided to quit my job was so full of intuition, signs, encouragement—hell, I’ll say it—magic… I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt and for the first time in my life, that I had to swallow the opportunity costs, let go of the things I created to comfort myself, and take a shot at my dream. I had (and some days still have) no clue how that works, looks, or shakes out.
Turns out that was much easier felt, imagined, envisioned, and even decided upon than actually done. Nearly every day between giving my notice (October 2016) and landing in Mexico City (January 2nd, 2017) was a mess of anxiety, chaos, fear, and occasional excitement or peace.
“Everyone’s reaction to stress is different, of course — your comfort zone is not mine,” writes Alina Tugend in the NY Times. I’m finding that moving between zones is very much a highly customizable rhythm that only we can establish for ourselves. It’s mental and emotional hygiene we don’t talk much about or teach in any structured way; it’s up to us to decide how far we want to push ourselves toward self-actualization. As George Ambler aptly puts it, “In this sense, leaders are self-made and not born, they are developed, not promoted. Leadership is a learned skill that is developed as you step out of your comfort zone.”
My point is this: the world needs what is uniquely you. It needs what is uniquely me. Is it always easy, comfortable? Nah, not a chance. I’m scared; I’m shaking in my boots. And I’m trying to find some semblance of courage each day to deepen my honesty, my humility, and maybe remind you that if you’re scared, you’re not alone. I’d be willing to wager you’re doing the same in your life. If you’re terrified, I’m with you. I’ve got your back. And I hope to hell you’ve got mine… because I need whatever wisdom you’ve got so that I can keep growing, too.
How do you navigate between zones? What have your experiences with fear, self-doubt, and the danger zone taught you? What are your go-to strategies for creating that healthy balance we all need to thrive?
I’d love to hear other perspectives on this one—so if you’re feeling like helping us all out, leave a comment and let us know what your beautiful brain has to share.