Recharging in the comfort zone

A while ago, I wrote a post on departing from a safe zone in which I stressed the importance of challenging oneself despite the temptation to stick to what we know how to do well and what the audience likes. Today I want to write about the importance of returning to the comfort zone. Sounds like a contradiction? Well, it isn’t. Not only are these two directions not mutually exclusive, but they both hold a strong place in the life of an artist.

The omnipresent slogan “Get out of your comfort zone” sits right next to “Think outside the box” and “Try something new today.” Its benefits are undisputed – taking risks is the only way to make discoveries, and pushing against our weaknesses is a vital part of self-development. In order to learn public speaking in a situation when we feel paralyzed and unable to ask a question at a Q&A session, we need to embrace the discomfort and force ourselves to speak. The same applies to creativity – merely repeating what feels easy and comfortable is not likely to expand our scope of expression while pushing ourselves to work with unfamiliar tools, subjects and methods can result in great discoveries. “An artist is the sum of his risks,” said Dorothea Tanning, whose autobiographical book I’ve just read.

On the other hand, once we’ve left the safe and comfortable zone of the “known,” it might take a long time before we reach the point of being satisfied with the experiment. It might also be that no Eureka happens on the way and we need to go back to the start. What then? The feeling of groping in the darkness and working at something that is not coming out well is pretty tough. It’s extremely easy to feel daunted, discouraged, angry and even worthless if after a day of work we have nothing that we’re proud of. This is a feeling I’ve been running into recently, whilst working on my graphic novel project. I draw, sketch, think, make notes, and sometimes I feel like tearing up the sketchbook. Coincidentally, in those last weeks, I have learned several new recipes from my Indian cookbook. I love cooking, and I cook on a regular basis, therefore I wasn’t giving much thought to why instead of defaulting to a quick stir fry I was so eager to choose complicated recipes and spend a couple of hours roasting spices and preparing three different marinades. What I was subconsciously seeking was a gratification, a sense of achievement at the end of a frustrating day. Cooking feels comfortable, and because I am confident that following even a brand new recipe which requires a lot of attention and patience will produce satisfying results, I have such an urge to do it.

“Something I realized about getting outside the comfort zone is that it really is an intense experience (..) that requires a certain amount of inner strength,” says Eben Pagan, business entrepreneur, author and speaker, best known for teaching dating advice to men (as David DeAngelo). This quote comes from a DVD set called Man Transformation which I stumbled upon a few days ago. The issues he talks about, though addressed at men who want to meet women, are relevant to everyone embarking on a new and difficult endeavour, be it an artistic project, a business startup, or any other challenge.

In the modern society, says Pagan, we often find ourselves in a state of confused mess, trying to multitask whilst staying connected to everything and everyone, and so we easily dissipate energy and lose the ability to focus on the things that are important to us. In that state, it is extremely hard to get ourselves to go beyond the comfort zone, because we may not even have the energy to keep our focus on the tasks we’re dealing with. And so, he says, in order to get to the edge of the comfort zone and go over it, we need “a base of safety and security.” This is something we don’t often think about when we have a roof over our head and some money in the bank, but the anxiety we feel when dealing with the complexities of modern life puts us in the same survival mode as our ancestors had when dealing with forces of nature. It is very important to create a foundation of safety and security, and that, according to Pagan, encompasses three areas – physical, emotional and logical.

Naturally, the understanding of safety and security in those areas is entirely subjective and so we need to ask ourselves what feels safe and secure for us. Physically, it might be a space at home, a bedroom or just a bed – any area where the stressful stimuli coming from computers, mobile phones or TV are simply cut off, enabling us to recharge. I wrote a bit about this a while ago in a couple of posts, The Art of Tidying Up and Solitude, Routine and Art where I was describing how, in order to keep my head free from unnecessary noise, I began to comply with a “10pm internet curfew” my boyfriend had introduced.

Another sphere is emotional safety. For me personally this means being able to share my feelings and emotions with people who are closest to me – my boyfriend, my mother, and my best friend. Knowing that I can tell them whenever I am failing and banging my head against the wall in frustration or fear, and get their understanding and support, is incredibly important. I’ve always believed that having even one person with whom one can share the deepest, dirtiest, most shameful feelings is far superior to having lots of friends and acquaintances who only get the censored and edited information of our life. The process of working on something difficult where there’s no sign of a successful end result on the horizon is not very “attractive” so those who are willing to engage and empathise with it are priceless.

Finally, there’s logical safety and security. Now, my interpretation of this third area differs from Pagan’s view, because for me it is directly linked to the creative process. The way I perceive it, the logical safety and security is an area where we feel confident – our comfort zone, so to speak. Having things we know we do well and can get reward from is like a boost of confidence to help us deal with the daunting project. I mentioned cooking earlier, for I believe this doesn’t have to be connected to art; jogging or learning a language can be equally ego-boosting as long as the results are visible and there’s something we can congratulate ourselves on each time we go for a run or learn new words. My other great comfort zone is writing, which is something that comes easily and naturally after a decade of writing a journal. I have recently been thinking though that I need to allocate a comfort zone within the area of my visual work. This is not an issue if I am working on a project I feel relatively safe about, but the graphic novel project is way outside of my comfort zone. And so I decided I need to set myself another little project where the goal is reachable. The first thing that popped to my head is sketching. A while ago I used to keep one-sketch-per-day books, though back then the agenda was to improve my life drawing (which is a good thing to do anyway, at any time). This time I needed to remove myself from all agendas. And so I am drawing half-realistic, half-imagined sketches of objects around me with no obligation to achieve anything in particular apart from putting down some lines and marks in a way that satisfies my subjective eye. This, combined with a plate of chicken dopiaza and tarka daal, might just about counterbalance the book-related ordeal.

Going outside of the comfort zone is crucial to learn things, make important changes to our life and work, and exciting discoveries. But it is equally important to do things we feel comfortable about, alongside the intimidating undertakings. And by “things” I mean tasks which require activity and either intellectual or physical work on our part (lying on the sofa with a book is an entirely different type of recharging.) That way, we won’t let the things happening outside of the comfort zone shake our inner balance and emotional stability. And those are the key ingredients of a happy life.