According to the site Positive Psychology‘s page on the topic, ‘the phrase “comfort zone” was coined by management thinker Judith Bardwick in her 1991 work Danger in the Comfort Zone.
In which Bardwick writes: “The comfort zone is a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.”
In simple terms, the comfort zone is where you put the line up between what you think is OK, and what you think is not OK. It’s where you define the edge of where you feel safe.
Bardwick notes that this is a ‘behavioral state.’
States change: ice melts, water freezes, and liquid evaporates.
The changes of state happen when there’s a trigger point, right? But what is it, exactly, can we pinpoint it?, that leads us to change states regarding drawing the lines that mark our sense of safety.
There’s emotional safety, psychological safety, physical safety… oh, wait. I have a story… Safety, in a very physical sense, is part of this ‘comfort zone’ thing.
Unplanned: boxed into Việt Nam for 20 months
Getting out of the house is getting out of your comfort zone, for example, when you are in a lockdown in a pandemic wherever you may have experience that if you did, in the world.
I was in one of the most strict lockdowns, according to some news sites, that took place in the summer of 2021 in Ho Chi Minh City, for example.
Okay, so, I am a daily walk person. I walked to VinMart as an excuse for a walk, to buy apples or leaves of whatever was in stock, or, I tried to walk over to the alley pictured above. I mostly couldn’t because it was cordoned off, but I could when that was sort of partially torn down by people like me who like walking.
People were at first very obedient and ‘we’re all in this together’ and ‘up, Việt Nam’ because of collectivism and me, too, I was there, too, but I stopped reading the free propaganda paper when extended lockdowns were further extended (a week, then a month), and on and on and on, and people… stopped being so trusting of the government; without saying so, outwardly, just, you could feel it palpably.
I didn’t see protests, but I read articles in the Vietnamese News Express about how poor people who were not being cared for, quite desperate because of lack of food and income, were at the city’s (blockaded) borders, begging guards to be let out and invoking ancestors and praying. This broke my heart.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. You’re boxed in, and you’re watching. I had to do something. I did.
Thanks to a handful of donations for S P A C E’s ‘Book of Feelings’ campaign, I raised and gave USD600 in cash to my teammates who helped me create Atelier S P A C E’s projects in Ho Chi Minh City. I commissioned them for paid writing gigs.
I published these in S P A C E | ‘Book of Feelings’ and S P A C E | ‘Starfish’.
Van Tran created the poetry, art, and photography for the latter issue. It’s pictured just below.
Quan Nguyen wrote accounts of returning from life abroad and feeling uncomfortable with societal expectations.
Me, in which the penny drops: ‘Sao means star? And I know ocean. Wait. Star of the ocean. is.. a Starfish!? I love that.’
How about learning a new language while stuck in lockdowns in a pandemic?
How about taking the propaganda paper that comes through your door and plugging into google translate and pressing ‘play’ to learn how to pronounce the words with all their tones?
I had studied Japanese and learned it very formally. Vietnamese was different. It was street learning. Brute force. And opportunities taken when opportunities are there, to bungle and bumble through the messy part.
Mispronouncing. Putting your foot in your mouth without meaning to.
Hm. Maybe risking making mistakes that could even be offensive just to see if you are actually saying what you think you are saying is a kind of getting-out-of-box thingy. Language learning. Not easy.
But there is value to the learning process. Magical moments. How about suddenly grokking this, and understanding the simple beauty of words like star paired with ocean denoting ‘starfish.’ It is superb to arrive at insights from learning, and that exchange was one of those moments. (Another one, from this same time period, to tell you about. It’s below.)
Some of the authors and writers and photographers and others were people I met individually, out in life, or tried to network with through usual channels, and then got to know a tiny bit better through Zalo. There, I’d made a group, ‘Creative Ho Chi Minh’.
This sounded good to my Seattle aesthetics, but, no. Eventually, I deleted it because it was too stressful for people to get notifications about a group they didn’t know, or didn’t understand the point of.
Leave it to me to find out the hard way what not to do in collectivist, group-oriented societies that have a very defined structure of how to talk, address each other (older? younger? change the pronoun accordingly), and so many, many other details.
This was me changing state. From the United States of America’s ‘can-do’ style to, um. Wu wei.
Was I talking about walking?
Luckily, I never got a fine, even if, well, technically I was supposed to be carrying around a ticket. Sometimes I had it, sometimes I tried to re-use it, hoping not to get grilled by anyone in a uniform. Or run into trouble.
But, you know?, I think all in all, having become culturally assimilated (acculturated, maybe, is the better word–I never change myself to mold into something) by that time for a year and a half already, I was able to kind of wing it. I guess all this reminiscing is making me think about the positive: the silver lining of difficulties is post-traumatic growth, they say.
I also made unbreakable bonds with a handful of people that co-experienced the same things, in my alley.
We had something in common.
Sometimes, to self-limit the walk zone area, and thereby cut down on risk, I would walk to the end of my alley and back. And forth. And back. And forth.
Then a house at the end of the street had a sign on their door saying ‘cách ly’ and that meant no more going there.
I made one friend just because we had to get out of our houses and have a look around. I asked her in my broken Vietnamese if I could walk over there (pointing) and she said do you live there and I said no and she said, no then, and I smiled and she did, too.
This was the kind of stuff that was normal, in my socializing, in that time of deep uncertainty while waiting for the pandemic to ‘end.’ (More about this in my book, Solitude / Kismuth Books 2021). Oh, but to finish my story. By October, lockdown lifted, and I walked by with friends and saw her. I waved, grinning, and she waved, grinning, back.
‘Who is that?’
‘My um.’ My can’t-just-sit-still-at-home-either friend.
That was cool.
This is human: to see that, and to be cool with each other, because.
I love S P A C E projects because, when I’m lucky, we hit on moments exactly like this. Awareness begins. And edges push out.
Psychological boxes, the status quo, and what Tony Hseih said
Physical safety zones, though, or law-requiring ones, aren’t the sort of boxes I mean.
The kind of comfort zone that most of the people that I used to talk to when DK was taking on bunches of projects (Seattle, Raleigh-Durham), is different form lockdown housebound situations.
I’m talking about psychological limit-setting and holding yourself back or finding out there is someone in your life who is holding you back (overbearing parent, deep seated rivalry, an insecure boss, you name it, I’m sure there’s a relationship dynamic out there that fits it).
But how do you do it?
How do you actually take the first step to get out of your box? Personally, I think the first step is actually wanting to get out of your box. Because you have to be super honest about it, and own up to the fact that, more times than not, I’ve seen people don’t want to change. States.
So many times when I talk about creativity and innovation, I see that there’s a missing will to change things. Sometimes it is clinical, because depression is real (thank you mental health awareness campaigns that have educated me on other people’s situations. I understand that this is real, and I’m not talking about that, either.)
The status quo is the comfort zone. The status quo is also the enemy of creativity.
When you cling to the familiar, it means no thinking out new things, no innovation, no diversification, and eventually, stagnation or turnover, or you can see what I am saying, right?
I did study abroad to Japan and Ghana while I was in school, and I also did solo trips to India, Thailand, Finland, Latvia, okay, you see what I mean.
I like movement because I like to seek challenges.
Each place I go, I learn something. About where I go, and what it tells me about who I am. At that moment.
We are always changing.
[Aside: I have a beef with people who label themselves ‘creatives.’ No, thank you. Everyone is creative.Which is why, at our deepest levels, I feel, everyone wants to be creatively engaged–at work, especially, since we spend so much time there. So, for me, I want to find ways for people to make their workplaces more inspiring to be in for the people who work there, which takes the kind of leadership that says, ‘Okay. Let’s get out of our box, here, and think about this afresh.’ It might sound weird to want to do this for someone as a day job, but I feel like all the places I worked in my life except for Ireland were more about productivity and less about, well, you know. The craic.]
Making work fun. Getting out of the comfort zone. Being interested in something new. Let’s talk about these topics, on the call today.
S P A C E membership. This is a conversation for just a few people, who are already members of the ambient community that I host, which is S P A C E.
More information about this zine, and the occasional calls that come into play when there is enough interest in that, is at the crowdfunding page.
Here’s a link.
‘When we stop growing, we start dying’
Here is a video we’ll discuss, too. I ask you to watch it before joining in on the zoom voice call. It is by a thoughtful creative practitioner and musician, Tony Hseih.