Leaving Our Comfort Zones

Has anyone ever told you to step outside of your comfort zone when you felt trepidation about doing something new or scary? Ever wondered why spending voluntary time in your growth zone is important?

Just a few weeks ago, as I squeezed into the window seat of a plane destined for Jackson Hole, I remarked on our excellent planning and luck. The 6 a.m. departure from LaGuardia wasn’t too bad, and it meant that our 8 a.m. departure from Chicago would get us into Jackson around 11 o’clock – just in time for lunch, and before the weekend snowstorm. As the door to the plane closed, I was in great spirits.

But when the pilot’s voice came over the speakers, he seemed pensive: “Ladies and gentlemen, it appears that our aircraft is overweight to land at the Jackson airport. We need nine people to deplane now and take a different flight. We’ll ask for volunteers first, and then will have to start picking. You will receive a flight voucher for your trouble.”

In this moment my partner and I had a choice to make: to volunteer or not to volunteer? Volunteering meant uncertainty. Would the incoming Chicago storm shut down the airport? Would we have to find a place to stay? When would we get to Jackson? Our choice, though, was mostly an illusion. If we were picked by the airline, we would have the same result.

In this moment, we chose to step outside of our comfort zones and volunteered to deplane. Would it be a bit difficult? Perhaps, and that was okay with us; we were willing to spend some time in our growth zones. What we didn’t expect was that this would be only the first of four times we would board a plane destined for Jackson, nor just how much we would have to step outside of our comfort zones over the coming days.

Let’s press pause on my personal situation and examine a different one: a student in a Teton Science Schools program visiting in January. She will enter our valley during its coldest month: a time when it’s so cold that Fahrenheit and Celsius agree to set aside their differences and meet at a heart-chilling negative 40 degrees. Maybe she flew to Jackson from Florida and has limited experience in this kind of environment. This student doesn’t really have a choice in where she is or what she is doing, because her week has been planned and prepared for her.

Imagine that after a good first day, challenging second, and rigorous third, the instructor of the program says, “Tonight we’re going to get about 18 inches of new snow. The temperature is going to drop right afterwards, so it might be 15 or 20 degrees below zero when we get into the field tomorrow. Make sure you bundle up and eat a big breakfast!”

As someone with limited control over the situation, how will this student feel? How would you feel? Would it put you outside of your comfort zone?

Our options in these two situations are deceptively open. While I may have been able to stay on that plane and fly to Jackson, I could just as easily have been told to leave. And the student can’t choose to stay curled up in bed tomorrow; he has a day of experiences ahead. However, we can both choose to face our situations with dignity, with an appetite for challenge, and with a little humor. That’s all a lot easier to do if we’ve spent some time voluntarily practicing being in our growth zones.

Two theoretical models – comfort zones and challenge by choice – offer a way for us to frame these kinds of voluntary growth experiences and their potential value.

A Teton Science Schools group might encounter the comfort zones model while on the Doug Walker Challenge Course, or while working through issues as a team. When I facilitate on the Challenge Course, I make a point of asking people to “step outside of your comfort zone,” specifically for its psychological and intrapersonal growth potential. When we enter our stretch zones, we tend to grow and learn much faster. Ultimately, the goal is to link the abstract idea of the stretch zone, and this Challenge Course practice in the stretch zone, with concrete lived experience. During her practice in the challenge zone, our visiting TSS student has the support of her instructor. I had no facilitator to guide my experience or pause button to press last week on the plane, but I had felt the feeling of the challenge zone before and knew how to handle the uncertainty.

The second model, challenge by choice, means that the level of challenge is up to the participant, regardless of where the threshold between challenge and panic is for them. For example, one student might be challenged by crossing the Catwalk (a single beam laid horizontally, 35 feet in the air) with a blindfold on, while another is challenged just by being tied into the belay rope and looking up. Challenge by choice is a great way to help people find where their stretch zones are without forcing them into their panic zones. Of course, it has limitations in the real world. Our lives and circumstances slip between zones often, and not always in a predictable manner; if we live particularly exciting lives this might happen daily or even hourly. Sometimes we have choices about the level of challenge we face, and sometimes we don’t. When we have had opportunities to be guided in and out of our stretch zones, it makes the normal fluctuations of life easier to approach and manage.

Back on the tarmac, what seemed like a simple choice – volunteering to leave the plane – became a modest epic that you are likely familiar with. Our trip was rerouted, and our flight to Denver was delayed several hours. On approach to Jackson from Denver, the plane diverted due to weather and landed in Bozeman, MT. With the airline unwilling to pay for a hotel, we again felt our stretch zones as we shared a hotel room with two people we met in Chicago. The following morning, as departure time approached and then passed, it was revealed that the jetway door was frozen shut, and that the crew was not present. Because we had chosen to be challenged in the past and knew what it felt like to be in our stretch zones, we knew that we actually did have choices, even when it felt like we did not. We knew that the choices we could make – to find joy, to refocus, to breathe – would help us get through.

The Tetons now in view, ten minutes from home, I reflected on my waves of emotions over the last day of travel. Each time a challenge was set in front of me, I did my best to analyze what I could change and what I could not. I remembered the times I had chosen to be uncomfortable for my own growth. It came to me, at some point, that voluntarily leaving our comfort zones in order to grow is a luxury, and sometimes even a privilege.

That is why I ask students to leave their comfort zones by choice: because next time you might not be able to choose. Next time, you can feel confident in knowing that when faced with a challenge outside of your comfort zone, you took it on with dignity, and had the best fourth day of learning you have had in a long time.

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