“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
“Good at languages” has been my professional identity since I was a child. The smiles on the faces of my English, French, Spanish teachers at school said it. My parents said it. My careers advisors said it.
“You’re good at languages,” they emphasised, and quite regularly.
I was good at many things when I was young. Good at writing essays, good at exams, good at science and using my imagination and eating – though cooking came later.
So why did they tell me that languages were what I should stick with? I loved doing so many things. Computer games, drawing pictures, reading. But I did love studying languages.
“We’re becoming a global world. You’ll get a good job if you can speak lots of languages.”
This was the starting point of my Comfort Zone. My identity became “language student”. All the time I used to spend reading beautifully crafted novels, I now spent trying to memorise new verbs. Where before I’d have made time for an episode of Mythbusters after school, I spent it learning a new alphabet.
I started getting scared of doing maths, of making things, of writing stories (“I haven’t in so long, what if I’m not good at it anymore?”). My only dream was finishing my Japanese Language Degree with a decent grade.
Yes, studying languages was my Comfort Zone. Which turned out to be a problem when I returned from my year abroad knowing I didn’t suit living in Japan. More so when I realised speaking Japanese wouldn’t help me get a job in rural England. I floundered, unsure of what do to.
Couldn’t I just … start learning another language?
I literally couldn’t think of where I was going next, until my partner asked me,
“What did you want to be when you were a kid?”
From the time before Comfort Zone, I told him excitedly, I wanted to be an astrophysicist, an Egyptologist, a journalist, a writer, at one point a bus driver (according to my mum).
“See if there’s anything to do with those you can train in.”
Not that I wouldn’t want to be a bus driver, but the website I immediately went to was my university’s Broadcast Journalism MA course. My partner’s encouragement had given me permission, in a way, to look at it.
And turns out, I was eligible for the course.
I was so nervous starting it, but if I hadn’t pushed out of my Comfort Zone and applied, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now.
I’m getting through my MA a week at a time, and sometimes I’m still not sure if journalism is right for me. But it’s reignited a passion I had for reading and writing as a child, and I know now that whatever I end up doing professionally, I have that.
I don’t wait for permission from anyone now to step out of my Comfort Zone. I don’t think you should have to either. Challenging yourself can, naturally, be Uncomfortable. But think of it like going to the shops in the rain.
Walking in the rain is cold and unpleasant, but you know without doing it you won’t be able to buy that chocolate bar you’re craving! You brave the rain, you get the chocolate bar.
You brave leaving your Comfort Zone, you get the reward of knowing you did something incredible.
If you want to take that leap, I’d like to provide some starter suggestions. Based off my lived experience, here are some ways you could challenge your comfort zone. Some are more straight forward than others, so depends on how much you feel you can push yourself!
1. Try a new hobby. Don’t be scared of being awful at it. Keep trying. You can’t be good at anything straight away, not really. You have to commit yourself to failing so you can learn, and you have to learn before you can succeed.
2. Join a course. Study something you’ve never studied before. Whether that’s a free language app, or applying for medical school, think of something you really wish you could study. And just do it. Oh yes, it’ll be scary. But it could change your world. Or it could bore the life out of you, but you’ll still have learned something new!
Incidentally, I met a man on the first day of my MA journalism course who was just starting a sociology course. He must have been in his late 50s or early 60s and told me how he had been working in environmental science previously. He’d never studied media before but decided to do something different and try for a change in career. So, take heed, it’s never too late!
3. Go volunteering. It’s something I’ve found (and heard from speaking to others) challenges you like nothing else, but with a unique balance of guidance. Whether abroad (which has the added bonus of travel!) or locally, you’ll meet new people and try new things. You can learn something about yourself from volunteering; and doing kind things for someone else can give you perspective on your own life.
4. Do something small but brave. Wear that weird coloured lipstick, cut your hair off, buy that neon raincoat, wear that ugly shirt your friends all hate. Give yourself permission to ignore what others will think of it.
I’m sure you can think of lots of other ways you could challenge yourself. But I think the important thing is to reflect on your Comfort Zone and where it started, so you can be effective in leaving it. It’s very much an individual journey.
Image courtesy of Porapak Apichodilok.