I sat alone at a table meant for two at a quirky restaurant in the center of town. The menu and decor were as eclectic as any I’d ever seen. There were many advantages that came with a role like mine that required travel—seeing new cities, meeting new people, and trying new foods. But for me, dining alone was always a challenge.
Usually, my head would have been tucked behind my computer or facing downward at my phone while scrolling through emails, but on this occasion, I was trying something new. I was working to separate myself from my devices so I could enjoy the world, the people, and the conversations around me.
I was particularly intrigued by a family at the table next to me. They were a young couple with an elementary school aged son and daughter. My mind flashed back to my own children when they were that age and all the wonderful, simple moments we shared together.
The boy slammed shut his menu and emphatically declared that he would have a cheeseburger and fries for dinner! He then began driving his toy car around the table with his cup and cutlery becoming the markers for his racetrack.
The mom, very kindly and delicately, suggested that he try something new since he always ordered the burger when they went out. I listened as they went back and forth and as she gave him the gentle push toward a new meal adventure.
But he really didn’t want to try something new.
Don’t we all live our lives much in the same way as that little boy?
Maybe not only in what we order at restaurants, but in every other aspect of our lives. It’s what we wear, the route we take in our commute, the path we take when we walk the dog, who we engage with, our jobs, our hobbies, our activities, or our habits.
As humans we crave comfort. It’s in our nature to seek safety not only from physical dangers, but also from psychological ones. We desire the known and the pleasant, and why wouldn’t we? We remember what happened to us when we made ourselves vulnerable and tried something new. We remember the pain of our friends laughing at us after we brought up a new idea. We remember when a teacher said we were “completely wrong” when we raised our hand with a new thought. We have all felt the pain and rejection of a lost relationship or of one that we never even started.
Comfort equals safety in our mind. And so, we avoid discomfort and pain.
However, the world outside of the barrier of discomfort is full of possibilities. Harvard Medical School Psychologist Susan David has it right when she says, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Think back on the major events of your life, which of them didn’t require discomfort? Did any of them come without at least a small amount of pain? I’m willing to bet that not even one did.
You had to be vulnerable to ask out the person who eventually became your soul mate. You had to step out and go to the interview for that job you love. You applied to that program or college. You pushed your limits and taught that class, you called that person, or you wrote that poem. You showed someone a project, a thought, a dream. You closed your eyes, held your breath, and made that jump into the unknown.
You pushed through the boundaries of discomfort and into the realm of possibilities. Maybe it didn’t always work out. Maybe a few times you tripped and fell, but without that discomfort, without those scratches, you would never even know what is possible, and you would never have grown.
As Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
For me, I was very comfortable at my job. For 32 years, I worked at the same company. Yes, I had different roles and worked in different locations, but the job and company were the same. It was like that soft, old T-shirt that you keep wearing even though it’s tattered and torn. It felt safe.
However, deep inside I had a different calling. It took me years to understand it and even more time to push through the pain and discomfort of moving toward this calling, but I did it. I left my role and moved full-time to working as a facilitator, coach, and teacher.
Even when you commit, make the decision, and take steps to push through the discomfort and into the realm of possibilities, fear can be overwhelming. There are times when we just want to turn back and run full steam to the safety of our comfort zone.
Fortunately, we can learn from others and use tools to help us during these difficult times. One of my favorite tools is the Worst-Case Scenario game. Randall and Beth played this game often in the series, This Is Us. In the game, they state every possible terrible outcome that could occur with a situation they face. Why? Openly sharing a fear diminishes that fear’s power. A study at the University of Chicago found that when students spent 10 minutes before an exam writing about their worries, they showed a significant 5 percent accuracy improvement.
There are times even now, that I feel the draw back toward the center of my circle, but I am using tools to manage my fear, and I am keeping my eyes and heart focused on my new possibilities. The world is so much different than what I thought it was from inside my comfort zone. The view from here is amazing.
Now, I am not advocating that you leave your job or career like I did. What I’m asking you to consider is opening yourself to something new. Think about your life and where you are clinging to the comfortable. I ask that you push through the boundary of discomfort in some small area.
Change your routine. Try out a new restaurant and order a new dish. Turn right instead of left as you drive out of your neighborhood. Call that old friend who you haven’t talked to in years. Ask your team to approach a problem in a completely different way. Open yourself to possibilities, and push through the barrier of discomfort to see them.
At the restaurant, I laughed to myself as the boy reopened his menu, pointed to the page, and asked, “What are King Crab legs?” Mom and dad’s eyes were like saucers, and you could see the dollar signs whirling in their minds, but they allowed him to continue his adventure. I’ve never seen someone enjoy a meal quite like that!
If our lives are like the menu in that little restaurant, what will you order?