My comfort zone is like a little bubble around me, and I’ve pushed it in different directions and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fall within the realm of the possible.Alex Honnold
When climbers ascend Everest or other lofty mountain peaks, they must take their time to acclimatize to the altitude and lower levels of oxygen. Typically they spend about two days at each elevation above 8,000 feet. They’ll climb up high during the day and go back down to sleep for the night. This gradual ascent allows their bodies to adjust to the harsh new environment.
For each of us to reach our peak potential, we too must push beyond our comfort zone into what others call the growth zone where our minds and bodies can grow and improve. I call this zone the adventure zone because we enter this zone when we’re venturing into new and exciting territory – or adventuring.
From a neuroplastic and physiological perspective, this makes sense. Our bodies only adapt to what’s required of them. We won’t grow new muscle unless we need it. Our brains work the same way. We won’t grow new neural pathways unless we need them.
What this means for us is that if we want to level up our lives, and get out of our current patterns of behavior and thinking, we need more adventure! We need more stress and anxiety. Not negative anxiety and stress. I’m talking about eustress. The kind of stress and anxiety you feel when you ride a big rollercoaster. Exhilaration and excitement are stresses just as much as panic and dread are. Your body responds the same way to both.
Here’s a visual showing the optimal level of stress. We want to push beyond our comfort zone but not too far. The optimal growth happens in the middle and just like climbing Everest, we need to pull back to the comfort zone to reflect, learn from our challenges and prepare for the next trip into the adventure zone.
From Comfort Zone to the Adventure Zone
When leaving the comfort zone, fear doesn’t always equate to being in the panic zone. As the below diagram shows, fear can be a necessary step en route to the learning and growth zones:
Before we arrive at the adventure zone, we have to pass through a few other zones. The first is the fear zone. This can be a scary place for many, but with a clear roadmap to the zones beyond and a guide to help, you can push through your fears and find the sweet spot where you learn and grow.
Just like acclimatizing on Everest, when you spend more time out of your comfort zone, your comfort zone expands, which in turn, expands your adventure zone.
Also similar to Everest, it’s important to state that like most serious attempts to move out of your comfort zone and expand your adventure zone requires a high level of self-awareness. Consider the following:
- Where are your zones?
You have different-sized comfort zones in each domain of your life. You may be comfortable in large crowds, but feel anxious being alone. Other people may feel the exact opposite. To optimize growth, you need to know where the boundaries of your zones are in various domains of your life.
- What are your strengths?
Looking back at your life introspectively, you’ll surely find times you left your comfort zone. Visualize this experience and feel what it felt like. What areas were you strong and confident in and what areas were harder for you? As you plan to stretch your comfort zone, look to your strengths to build confidence.
How we Benefit from Leaving the Comfort Zone
We’ve discussed how venturing beyond comfort leads to adaptation, but let’s get a bit more specific. Here are some additional ways in which spending time in the adventure zone helps us live more fulfilling and meaningful lives.
- Increased resilience – Trees that grow in windy areas develop thicker trunks and stronger roots. They’re more resilient to changing conditions around them. You also develop more resilience if you experience regular stress. This means when life throws you a curveball, you’re ready to roll with it.
- Growth mindset – When we regularly venture into the adventure zone, we learn that growth is a constant in our lives. We can apply this concept to all areas of our lives, not just the areas we are leaving our comfort zone in. This means we’ll become lifelong learners and adopt a growth mindset in every facet of our lives. This will serve us in many ways, but will lead to adaptability, excitement, and fulfillment, and will prevent boredom and stagnation.
- Confidence – When we continually set challenging goals for ourselves and accomplish them, we will gain self-confidence and be able to set loftier goals and accomplish them. Those who climb Everest have likely already successfully summited other peaks that lead them to believe Everest is possible.
- Self-actualization – With continual growth in meaningful areas, we can arrive at a place where we feel we’re living our best lives. This is self-actualization or a state of reaching our full potential.
10 Ways to Leave Your Comfort Zone
Here are some simple ideas to get started exploring a life of adventure
- Learn a new skill – Never been kayaking, spelunking, or rock climbing before? Try one of these or another adventure activity and you’ll surely get in the adventure zone. You could also learn to play an instrument, speak a new language, or learn how to bake.
- Confront a fear – What scares you? Is it snakes? Heights? Tight spaces? Exposure to anything that scares you in a safe manner will stretch you and help you grow your confidence and resilience.
- Experience a new culture – Traveling to new places, meeting new people, or just learning about them from afar can help broaden your horizons and stretch you. When was the last time you hung out with Buddhist monks or chatted with the refugee family down the street?
- Create something – Creating art, music, crafts, or writing are all ways to move out of your comfort zone.
- Turn off autopilot – We all have routines. We sleep in the same room, on the same bed, with the same pillow every night. Switching up even small parts of our routine can get us unstuck. Try driving a different route to work and see how engaged you are compared to your normal route.
- Push your physical limits – Many people stretch into the adventure zone by setting physical goals. Hitting a new PR 5k time or climbing a higher difficulty rating at the climbing gym will push you to new heights and help you grow.
- Try new foods – Have you ever tried borscht or kimchee? Trying something new will get you out of comfort as well. If you’re looking for even more in this area, try making new recipes from scratch.
- Make new friends – Meeting new people is stressful for almost everyone. I think it’s even harder post-Covid. Next time you’re out and about, try making conversation with someone you don’t know. Do this face-to-face rather than on social media. You’ll surely feel stressed and move into the growth zone.
- Change traditions – Do you always cook a turkey for thanksgiving? Why not try cooking a pheasant instead or maybe make asparagus instead of green bean casserole? The point here is to break away from the routine traditions and try something different. It could be small and simple or as big as not celebrating Thanksgiving at all and celebrating a holiday from a different country instead. Like the Homowo Festival held in
Failure is part of the process
If you’ve put some thought into your comfort zone and what new adventures you may want to try, you may have realized that in so doing, you’re likely to fail. Failure is part of growth. When you were younger, you didn’t fear failure as much as you do now. You took your first steps, learned to ride a bike, ate new foods, and went to your first day of kindergarten you probably felt a bit of fear, but you didn’t let that hold you back. You most certainly had a parent or other guide there to help you and reassure you that you could accomplish your goals safely and that helped you.
Now that you’re an adult, fear may be paralyzing you from growth. If this resonates with you, it’s time to do some self-work or find someone to be your guide to figure out what’s at the root of your fears and decide if they’re worth holding on to as beliefs or if they’re holding you back from a more fulfilling and satisfying life.