Originally published 8/9/2016
Earlier this year, I traveled to Sri Lanka on a volunteer trip. Admittedly, I chose Sri Lanka more or less on a whim based on a friend’s recommendation. I didn’t know much about the culture or geography before going, but I was looking forward to getting away from my daily routine and pushing myself out of my comfort zone.
That’s right, I was excited about going outside my comfort zone. It may be hard to believe, because by very definition, we are uncomfortable outside of our comfort zones. Fortunately, I’ve learned enough to know that this is truly where the magic happens (see helpful graphic above). We often get thrown into completely unfamiliar situations, and it can cause us to retreat back to what we know. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek out experiences that make us a little uncomfortable, but we should be prepared. If you look at the word discomfort, 70% of that is comfort. It’s a helpful to think of going outside of your comfort zone in much the same way. 70% comfortable, 30% uncomfortable. Or if it’s easier to remember, go with the 80/20 Pareto principle. Much the same way that doing a complete 180 on your diet and exercise habits is often unsustainable, so too is pushing yourself too far out of your comfort zone. We like to be surrounded by the familiar. We like to have a degree of predictability or routine in our lives. And we like to be in control.
What I’ve found is that over time, if you slowly but consistently push yourself further out of your comfort zone, that zone expands. Experiences or situations that used to scare the bejeesus out of me are perfectly comfortable or at least less scary because I’ve repeatedly exposed myself to them. Anytime I know I’m going to be uncomfortable, I do what I can to prepare so I’m not going in blind. For Sri Lanka, I read up on the culture and language. I knew food might be a little tricky, so I researched dietary habits. I volunteered with an organization that put me in a house with other volunteers from around the world so I could build relationships and make sure I had a support system in the country. And most importantly, this wasn’t my first international experience. I relied heavily on the foundation of experiences I’ve had over the last several years, traveling to countries such as China and Ecuador.
There were certainly aspects of the trip that I wasn’t used to or didn’t like. Anytime I wasn’t actively showering, I was covered in sweat, which led to copious amounts of BO (sorry volunteer roommates). I was constantly spraying myself with bug spray to avoid getting more than 20 mosquito bites per day, and many of the bathrooms I went into had only a spray hose for cleaning yourself rather than the TP I expected. Not to mention, my Singhalese is extremely limited, and English isn’t spoken by everyone. It was often hard to communicate with people, which made me feel isolated. And my heart was broken by the sight of all the street dogs. But despite all this, I connected with several of the locals and learned about their culture. I got to sit in a tree house during a thunder storm with one of the coordinators and listen to his story about growing up in Sri Lanka and how he feels about all the corruption in the country. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had. My stereotypes and biases were challenged through this experience, and I was reminded that above all else, we are humans searching for connections to other humans.
It’s easy to stand where you are and make assumptions about other people, especially if their cultural or ethnic background is different from you. But without putting yourself out there and trying to understand their point of view, you will miss out on opportunities to learn and create new and wonderful relationships with others. Are you willing to step outside your comfort zone for a richer life experience?