One of the ways I like to evaluate the discomfort zone is to complete the following sentences:
“Oh, I’m just not really a ____ person.”
“I just don’t do ____.”
“Nah, there’s no way I could ever ____.”
Growing up, I tried ballet, gymnastics, piano lessons, aikido, youth group, Girl Scouts, clarinet, oboe, the spelling bee, French, and various summer camps. I was thrown full-immersion into fourth grade in Mexico. I tried out for the tennis team having never played (I didn’t make it), switched to sousaphone my last year of marching band (at the time I was 5’2’’, 90 lbs.), participated in an amateur all-ages hip hop dance on a cruise, provided the music for a church service, drove from Atlanta to Indianapolis on a learner’s permit (supervised), and so on.
Nonetheless, in many ways my comfort zone was undisturbed. I was so used to trying certain kinds of new things that I didn’t even see it as abnormal. What I’ve learned since arriving at Pomona is that there is an enormous difference between doing new things because you have opportunities that enable you to do so and actually stepping into your discomfort zone. If you’re not nervous, if you’re not uncomfortable, and if you don’t question whether you actually should have ever done this in the first place, you still have further to go.
A quick interjection: I don’t necessarily condone doing things that you’re actively against or that are genuinely, justifiably bad ideas. I’m talking about harmless bravery and life experiences. Use your judgment and all that.
Not falling off a cliff
Over sophomore spring break, some friends and I went to Zion National Park to camp and hike. The camping part was a breeze, or rather, a 50-mph wind that prevented our tent from staying up. We slept under the stars and managed to start enough fire to make food. As for the hiking part, Zion National Park is very… vertical. I am not scared of heights — if I’m up thousands of feet and I have a safe harness, railing, etc., I’m fine. But I am deathly afraid of falling.
We decided to go on a hike about 8 miles long (4 out, 4 back) that wasn’t one of the ones marked for heights. It didn’t seem too hard, and it was beautiful, but it kept going up until the trail had a cliff going straight up on one side and straight down on the other. I’ll spare the details, but I spent the entire hike 99% positive that I was going to die. As a bonus, my constant stream of petrified tears and clutching at the wall managed to cost enough time that we had to turn around almost immediately after reaching the top. On the way down, I sang songs from my childhood under my breath in an effort to find a happy place, vehemently ignoring everything and everyone around me. Then it was over. I was embarrassed, I was the most scared I had ever been, and upon reaching the bottom again I had never been prouder (or more relieved).
They went on one of the hikes marked for heights the next day. I spent the day alone listening to music and hanging out at the campsite.
I don’t intend to study abroad, but I wanted the experience and thought a four-week summer program would be suitable. I was excited when I got accepted to the CIEE Paris Summer Language and Culture program for this past summer, but as the time approached, I grew increasingly dubious. I’d never traveled alone before and I frankly wasn’t sure I wanted to. Nonetheless, I had a plane ticket, and so I went.
I arrived in the CDG airport feeling more terrified than ever. I had a few hours to wait before meeting my program. I clumsily attempted to order a croissant only to be addressed in English, got ripped off 2.5 euros by someone who was in hindsight obviously a scammer, and did a lot of sudoku puzzles, all while trying not to focus on how far I was from home. After meeting the people in my program, I learned that many of them were from much bigger universities and had… different social interests from me. I was jet-lagged, scared, and regretted everything.
Four weeks later, I had seen the entire Louvre (9 visits!), given a 25-minute presentation in French, become comfortable being alone, eaten macarons, mastered my metro face, and seen La Bohème in the Opéra Bastille. For the first time, I’d had to fend for myself financially, socially, and logistically, and now I had empirical evidence that yes, I could handle it.
It goes on and on.
Previously an oversleep-noon-classes person, I signed up for 8:00am Elementary Chinese two years ago. Now I’m a morning person, I can read and write around 1000 Chinese characters and counting, and I can carry on a working if clumsy conversation on some topics.
Previously a no-strength exercise-despising person, I signed up for weight training this semester. Now I can bench-press well over half my body weight, my muscles are visible, and I have finally done a pushup for the first time in my existence.
So here’s my two cents for today: Find your discomfort zone on purpose. Maybe it’s yoga, gamelan ensemble, a sport, an academic course, travel, or just asking someone to have lunch with you. College is the perfect time to try whatever it is, and who knows? It could be a no-go, your next phase, or the rest of your life.