I woke up this morning at around 4 am with a familiar sense of anxiety. My thoughts raced, as they often do at that hour, and I found myself thinking of a piece of advice I have often heard. A key to success, it is sometimes said, involves the willingness to step outside one’s “comfort zone,” take risks, embrace the unfamiliar and awkward. The thrust of the advice is that most of us tend to remain in our comfort zones (because, well, they’re comfortable) but in doing so we miss opportunities for personal growth, increased productivity, success. We really want growth, productivity, success, we really do, but we trade them for easy, lazy comfort. We should be ashamed of ourselves! Doesn’t it make you want to do something? Something… uncomfortable?
Something about this line of thought suddenly struck me amiss. Very amiss. I composed a very cynical status update for Twitter and Facebook– it was 4 am and I was cranky– but then my friend the backspace key came to my rescue. I eventually tempered it to the following:
That one even has a “comfort zone” out of which to take steps is a sign of great privilege.
Short, gnomic, but hardly a complete line of thought. And the update struck me even at the time as subject to misinterpretation. So, whether you liked it, hated it, or (most likely) never, ever saw it because I posted it at 4 am, I will try to complete my thought here.
What struck me amiss about the advice to step out of my comfort zone is that I don’t feel like I have a comfort zone. To be clear, since the advice of stepping outside of the comfort zone generally comes in the context of work, or professional development, or vocation, let me say that I don’t have a work or professional comfort zone. (My personal life has few comfort zones either, but let’s leave that aside for right now.) I wish I did have a professional comfort zone. Having one of those sounds nice. I think that in the past I have had one. But I don’t think I have had much of one for the last four years. So being told to step out of it feels rather like being told to leave the farm and see the world. Good advice, perhaps, but I don’t live on the farm. I don’t know whether there would ever be a place for me on the farm again, frankly. So it’s not advice I know how to use.
What’s more, it seems to me that to have a professional comfort zone is to enjoy a specific sort of privilege, and that, like other kinds of privilege (white privilege, male privilege, etc.), it can be difficult to see you enjoy it when you do. Not that a “comfort zone” is identical with any of those other kinds of privilege; I claim to know this only because I benefit from loads of other kinds of privilege even in the absence of a “comfort zone.” I am in fact rather privileged, and it would be foolish of me to pretend otherwise. Just this privilege seems to be lacking.
Perhaps some analysis is in order. What is a “comfort zone,” anyway, beyond just feeling comfortable at work? It seems to me that to be in a comfort zone involves the following.
(1) A comfort zone consists of tasks and responsibilities which are not only familiar, but which one feels one is able to do well, or at least well enough. I will leave it an open question just how well someone in her comfort zone actually performs those “comfortable” tasks in some absolute sense, or even whether she performs them to the best of her own ability. Perhaps leaving the comfort zone involves doing the same things, just doing them in a different way that moves one’s output from the merely good to the great. Perhaps not. What makes the zone one of comfort is familiarity and adequacy, not excellence.
(2) A comfort zone is one in which one feels, and probably is, largely insulated from risk and interference in conducting one’s “comfortable” tasks and responsibilities. It is a professional zone of protection, a safe space; the spatial metaphor of a “zone” is apt. One feels that one can go about one’s business in a comfort zone and expect the respect of others in doing so. Respect here might look like any of a number of different things. It may look like others’ attention and praise. It might look like trust that others will cooperate in shared projects. It might simply look like not interfering or impeding one in doing what one thinks it best to do, even if the task could be done better than one will end up doing it. In short, the more control one exercises over the pace, timing, and direction of one’s own work, the more comfortable the zone.
(3) A comfort zone consists of tasks that one thinks are worthwhile. They need not be tasks that one thinks are the most worthwhile, just among the most worthwhile one is in a position to do at the time one is doing them. I may think that scaling Mount Kilimanjaro is incredibly worthwhile, and I might think my life a failure if I don’t scale it before I die. But I am not in a position to scale Mount Kilimanjaro any old time, and it is doubtful anyone will pay me to do so. But I can have a meaningful career nonetheless, and the tasks I perform may be among the most worthwhile I am in a position to perform on a routine basis.
Imagine by contrast what it feels like to perform outside our comfort zones. Circumstances force us, or we force ourselves, to do things we don’t know how to do, or we know we don’t do as well as others. We find ourselves suddenly insecure and exposed; we fear that what we are doing might invite increased scrutiny, disapproval, trouble, even active resistance. If we stumble or fail, we are already on shaky ground and we might not be entirely sure whether we know how to right ourselves or whether anyone else will be there to catch us. We may think that ultimately what we are doing just isn’t worth doing in the first place to boot. Outside of our comfort zones, we lack a sense of familiarity, adequacy, and control.
For the last four years of my life, my professional life has answered to the latter description far more than it has the former. The last four years of my professional life have been a cliff dive out of my comfort zone. This isn’t to say that my professional life has been completely bad in that time. It has just been extremely uncomfortable. I shan’t be more specific than this. I shall just say, should you be inclined to doubt my assertion, that you will simply have to trust me on this one. And you should trust me on this one. Really, you should.
Why, then, call a comfort zone a privilege? It certainly doesn’t sound negative the way that privileges tied to social oppressions are negative. On the contrary, a comfort zone sounds rather good to me. In fact, it seems like something like a “comfort zone” is necessary to finding meaning in one’s work at all. Who wants to go to work all the time feeling like one is doing badly, or that others are constantly looking over one’s shoulder, ready to pounce at the slightest opportunity to catch one in a mistake? Who wants to work without any kind of zone of respect? Who wants to do work that one doesn’t find worthwhile? I am hard pressed to think of anyone that, given the choice, would choose this over more comfortable work.
Where the element of privilege comes into play, it seems to me, is in the social context in which the very advice to step outside of one’s comfort zone so often emerges. If that advice was merely an encouragement to seek out challenges to keep one’s mind sharp and one’s day from becoming boring, that would be one thing. But more often than not the advice springs out of the context of an insecure, precarious labor market under late capitalism. Step out of your comfort zone, we are told, because if you don’t, your competition surely will. They will identify the new angle, the emerging market, the killer app before you, and then you will find yourself left behind, your livelihood dwindling and your job at risk. So step outside that comfort zone, do differently, and above all, do more. Complacency is laziness, and laziness will eventually leave you bloated, moribund, and dead in the water.
Aside from promoting the risible mentality that mistakes the slogans in commercials that air during golf telecasts for deep thought, this ideology of late capitalism has a completely different meaning depending on where you are located within it. If you are a wealthy venture capitalist, you can take “uncomfortable” risks and not fear for your ability to find health care or a place to live should your investments fail. This is not so clear if you are an entry-level employee or even a mid-level manager in a small company. Furthermore, if you are one of the latter for whom such risks threaten your very livelihood, the risks you take may not even benefit you as much as they benefit those further up the chain who have less of their life and limb at stake. In fact, your hard work may simply be underwriting the large strategic risks they are taking, often without your knowledge (much less your advice or agreement).
Thus the exhortation to move outside one’s comfort zone can be a call to consent to being exploited. Like the (thoroughly racialized) notion of the work ethic, it functions as part of a a strategy to redistribute risk from the more powerful onto the less, all the while sending the message that the way to become more powerful is to keep working more and taking on more and more risks. Perhaps what is needed, then, for our lives to be better is not more stepping out of our comfort zones, but instead a deliberate effort to recognize and honor the comfort zones we have and a deliberate effort to find and create zones of comfort for ourselves and others.