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  • Writer's pictureJamie McCarthy

The Tyranny of 'Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone'.

19th August 2015.

‘She needs to get out of her comfort zone.’

‘It was really good for me … it took me out of my comfort zone.’

‘The magic happens when you get out of your comfort zone.’

Moving out of our comfort zone is another of those modern orthodoxies that seems almost universally to be accepted as wisdom these days – something of value can only be achieved if we step out of our comfort zone.

According to this website:

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‘The earliest usage in relation to performance is in the title of Judith Bardwick’s 1991 work ‘Danger in the Comfort Zone: From Boardroom to Mailroom – How to Break the Entitlement Habit that’s Killing American Business’. ’

I can see how in a business setting, where someone wishes to get the most out of their employees and exploit their earning potential to the maximum (or would that be better put: ‘Exploit them, to maximise their earning potential’?), getting them out of their comfort zone might (in the short term) be profitable. Even if in the long term the stress involved in constantly negotiating new situations they’re not comfortable with could result in emotional or physical damage to individual employees, this need not worry you too much, since all individuals are replaceable earning units (as long as you maintain dependence and scarcity conditions in the employment market) and if your main concern is profit, rather than the well-being of humans, then I can really follow (if detest) the logic of getting people out of their comfort zones in that context.

The strange thing is that this business strategy has been adopted pretty wholesale in many areas of life – I hear it used all the time just in day-to-day life – for lots of people, getting out of your comfort zone is a must and woe betide those that insist on staying in theirs. ‘No wonder she’s stayed ill – she just won’t step out of her comfort zone.’ (It couldn’t be – no of course it couldn’t – that she’s just – er actually ill?!) It’s a good one in fact, because when someone’s not doing what you’d like them to, you can criticise them for not stepping out of their comfort zone and so wilfully, not doing what we ALL know is ‘the right thing’. It’s also a fantastic empowerment-speak justification for things like zero hours contracts: ‘It’s great – it really gets people out of their comfort zone of nine to five and a job for life. It can really empower people to think differently about how they work and live.’ Er – not if you’re skint and don’t know where you’re next pay-packet is coming from matey. Oh and there’s the small matter of whether you’ve chosen that new, empowering vision of work and life yourself, or whether you’ve had it foisted upon you …

I hear this phrase being bandied around in the world of the performing arts a lot too, in fact it’s become something of a pre-requisite for being successful in both arts education and in life as a performer / maker. I’ve heard students or artists being berated for refusing to step out of their comfort zone. As I write, I realise this is because the same business mentality has actually long been rife in some areas of the world of the performing arts (shit, we fairly pioneered the modern-day incarnation of zero-hours contracts!): performers and artists are seen as exactly the same kind of interchangeable, replaceable performance units that can be forced to be flexible in conditions of job scarcity; the effects of constantly negotiating new demands and situations upon the individual are of no consequence, since someone else will always be ready to replace you should you no longer be a functioning work-unit. In some cases this can actually result in a performer’s working life being severely curtailed as a result of the ‘non comfort zone’ conditions they’re asked to work in.


By being outside of your comfort zone you are in a place where you have less experience to base decisions one, your judgement is less secure and thus you may have to rely on the judgment of someone more experienced or perhaps more clued-in to that particular environment. You can no longer trust your internal sense of evaluation of situations, but have to rely more on a sense of evaluation outside of yourself. This makes you more likely to be open to being told what to do or even manipulated. In learning, it also makes you more likely to pay to participate in workshops by people skilled in drawing you out of your comfort zone.

Gosh – what a cynic! Are you saying these people are just out to make money out of me?!

Well, in a sense yes, I do think that’s often the case, but I don’t think that individual directors or teachers are aware that’s what they’re doing – they’re often just nice people trying to make stuff and make a living like the rest of us and provide something people seem to want. It seems to me it’s the culture of ‘beyond the comfort zone’ that sets up the environment in which this happens.

Funnily enough, many of the directors and teachers who habitually ask people to step out of their comfort zone, do so from a place that’s decidedly within their OWN comfort zone, so really they’re kind of asking people to uncomfortably enter THEIR own particular comfort zone … hmmm … interesting. Reminds me of ‘developed’ countries that only have the wealth they do as a result of an earlier period of protectionism, (and exploitation of the people and resources of other countries), but now advocate free trade for emerging economies (in fact ‘aid’ is often dependent on the countries adopting their free trade orthodoxy).

Another couple of (connected) thoughts:

Thought …

It occurs to me that sensing that things aren’t comfortable is a natural mechanism to let us know when it would be beneficial to us to get to a place of more safety. Somehow though, our current culture leads us to discount this useful warning sign and routinely override it. I wouldn’t say that our ‘natural’ warning system is infallible and sometimes it can be good to check that our ‘leaving the comfort zone’ alarm isn’t set, like one of those annoying fire alarms, to an over- reactive setting so it goes off all the time, but that aside, it feels to me like we ‘re being convinced en masse to distrust one of our basic senses of knowing about the environments we find ourselves in. It’s useful, I think to consider who benefits from our getting out of our comfort zones …

A connected thought …

A lot has been written recently about the effect of life at boarding school on the richest in our society, how being abandoned by parents at an early to a regime that enforces self-reliance and a stiff upper lip mentality creates ‘grown-ups’ who are incapable of empathy. Could it be that whilst we have not experienced the promised trickle down of wealth from the richer to the poorer in our society, we have instead, experienced a trickle-down of ideology? The ‘stop being a sissy, toughen-up, man-up and conform’ mentality has filtered down to us as ‘get out of your comfort zone’? We have to give it more of a touchy-feely veneer so it seems like some kind of therapeutic growth-oriented approach, hence the ‘comfort zone’ baloney … after all, we’re not really allowed to say things like that anymore are we, in education and the performing arts? Somehow, ‘You really need to work on getting out of your comfort zone’ sounds so much more caring and modern than, ‘Stop whingeing and toughen-up you pansy!’

This last thought makes me reflect on the development of an artist as opposed to a ‘performance unit’. Few of us nowadays would think a good way to encourage child-development is to constantly demand that a child negotiate de-stabilising situations – there has to be a sense of safety and repetition from which the child can then venture and vary. A young child explores what it knows and then when it’s ready it moves to new stuff, because for a majority of people it feels like it’s in their nature to want to experiment and explore. In ideal conditions (and with encouragement) the child balances safety and adventure in proportions that keep it easily within its comfort zone. Its world grows because of what seems like a natural curiosity and a desire to experience new things.

I have a feeling that for me, my artistic life is like this. I don’t need to impose non-comfort zone conditions on it in order to let newness and experimentation arise. In fact, for me, recognising and staying within my comfort zone is what has allowed me to grow artistically and to come up with things that surprise me (and I believe other people). Paradoxically, the more I investigate my comfort zone as an artist the more adventurous I become … I become more adventurous on my own terms. I’m generally not particularly good at doing what other people ask me to do (I can do it sometimes if I need to get some money), but that’s not what I WANT to do. It makes me less sellable, less employable, less controllable – but I believe more of an artist.

This has all reminded of the rules for students and teachers by Sister Corita Kent (added to and popularised by the composer John Cage):

‘Find a place you trust, and then, try trusting it for a while’.

‘Rules’ beloved by Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham – not artists renowned for their lack of originality and experimentation ;-)

(P.S. Thank you Seke Chimutengwende and Charlie Ashwell for inspiring conversations in relation to this subject).

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