The True Comfort Zone

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
-C.S. Lewis

Unless youíre looking to become an onstage performer, one of your main reasons for studying improv is probably to expand your comfort zone. Good for you!

Just keep in mind that youíre the only person who can do this work for you. Someone else might be able to help or to create the circumstances in which it happens but youíre going to have to do the heavy lifting.

The only way I know to expand your comfort zone is to get out of it. You have to court what you want to avoid--making yourself feel uncomfortable, maybe even like a complete fool. It's akin to how athletes work themselves to exhaustion and weakness in order to build stamina and strength.

By venturing outside of your comfort zone, you are likely to encounter befuddlement, incompetence, a sense of being lost, and embarrassment, among other things. And you will find that none of these emotions in itself is immediately fatal or even very harmful--although the deleterious long-term effects of chronic stressful feelings like these have been well documented by science.

Improv activities can cause anxiety. You might be doing something as simple as improvising an abstract gesture and yet you experience an elevated pulse rate, sweating, and shortness of breath. With repetition, however, these responses diminish. You get used to it. Repeated exposure is desensitizing.

At the end of courses I like to reprise an exercise or two from the beginning so that students realize just how far theyíve come. Through repeated forays outside their old comfort zones, students have claimed new territory that was once the realm of discomfort. They have to take that first step though and then they have to take the steps that follow. I canít teach them that experience; they must live it for themselves.

My MBA students at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School came up with a term for the border between the areas of comfort and discomfort, "the Fuck-It Zone" (or FIZ, if you prefer a more polite and effervescent acronym).

You know how youíve straddled the fence between doing something somewhat daunting and not doing it? Maybe you were trying to figure out how to ask out that special someone or working up the courage to jump off the high board at the swimming pool. Well, you probably reached the point where you tired of your indecision, said ďfuck it,Ē and just did it.

Thatís a beautiful and exciting thing because youíre opening yourself to growth and new horizons. The FIZ is the gateway to infinity, the limitlessness of yes.

By contrast your comfort zone is limited. Its border offers safety from the unknown and the frightening, which is how opportunity and adventure appear from behind that line. That border not only keeps things out but it also keeps you inside.

In my classes I often have students give spontaneous speeches with the goal of conveying an emotional message. (I encourage international students to present in their first language because the audience can understand emotional content even it can't understand the language.) If speakers are only hinting at emotions, I will push them out of their comfort zones by having them exaggerate the emotions. Sometimes students object, saying, "That's just not me." I see their point but that's not the point.

I want these reticent people to burst through the FIZ and out of their comfort zones. I want them to risk appearing foolishly enthusiastic about seemingly inconsequential things like cookies or shoes so that they can bring that same fervor to truly important things like their dreams, love, and justice.

I want them to go too far and be surprised by the positive and enthusiastic reactions they receive. Heartily expressing your emotions not only helps your audience to understand your message but also to share your passion.

What seems like outlandish exaggeration to the speaker from his or her interior perspective usually seems just right and real to the audience from its exterior perspective. And because speakers can go over the top, they don't always have to; their audience is somehow aware of that potential. I can't articulate why this is but I've seen it often enough in speakers, actors, and singers to know it's true.

After leaping through the FIZ and surviving it, the next step is practicing. With repetition, what once seemed outrageously risky and scary becomes a matter of course. Part of that is familiarity and part of it is expertise. You get better with practice. So, for example, a speaker striving to communicate more passion becomes more adept at it. You learn.

And yet you'll still make mistakes. But because your comfort zone is bigger, the mistakes won't get to you like they once did. Your comfort zone may become so big that others may never even be aware or care that you're making mistakes in delivery. (This is not, incidentally, an argument for doing sloppy work but rather one for letting confident, comfortable delivery enhance your solid efforts.)

Feeling at ease being and sharing yourself, mistakes and all, is the comfort zone to seek. If your comfort zone is less than that, itís not as safe as you think and itís limiting you.

-Greg Hohn