I laid on my back in my bed trying not to move. I focused on taking short shallow breathes. Perspiration beaded off my body as I lay completely still. This was a hot summer day on the border between the countries of Mozambique and Malawi. Just an hour earlier I had been sweating at my desk in the local public health department. I was working with the data collection unit. Floor fans sat amongst the collection of desks; circulating sedentary office air. I could not take it any longer. I invoked my “remote working” privileges and embarked on the trek across town, through a dusty dry wind barrage, towards the usually chilled solitude of my little cinder-block house. Alas, waiting for me at my tiny abode was not the atmosphere of productivity I had been longing for. This was one of the many uncomfortable days of my Peace Corps service.
From what I have gathered, this experience is not singular among Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. As difficult as getting outside of one’s comfort zone can be, I have learned that it is a habit foundational to mental and emotional growth. My mission is to highlight the proven importance of regularly stepping outside of your comfort zone and the key element you should add to your personal development toolbox: curiosity!
Uncomfortable situations yank on our sense of normalcy, break us out of mental autopilot, and force our brains to learn. In a study from Yale University, researchers observe a correlation between the brain reaching beyond its comfort zone and the increased likelihood to soak up new information. This means that if you are not readily able to predict the outcome of a task, your brain engages its learning mechanisms in attempting to do so. It is as if there is a flipping of a mental switch, and I know I have felt it before.
Getting outside your comfort zone helps facilitate the learning process, but it is not what catalyzes it; Curiosity as at the cranial root of apprehending new information. There’s a common adage that comes to mind: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This is exactly it, but I would add: …as long as you’re receptive to learn along the way. A curious, non-judgmental perspective can help us when our mental walls spring up in moments of discomfort. When entering an uncomfortable situation, we all have that split-second choice: fight, flight, freeze. But as we become more emotionally aware, I think we should incorporate a fourth option: stay curious.
Slipping into comfort is a human habit. Catching yourself is half the battle. When we get outside of our comfort zones our brains are like sponges as long as we stay curious. Go do something that gets you outside of your comfort zone: visit a meetup, join toastmasters, go to an event hosted by that political party you almost never agree with. But don’t forget: positive self-encouragement is important. Tell yourself it is going to be uncomfortable. You might make a fool of yourself, but that’s okay! As long as you keep the doors to your mind open and receptive to learn something new - everyone will win and grow together.
An aside: I regularly use the Headspace app (https://www.headspace.com/). I am currently mediating through a short course on Focus. Andy Puddicombe (https://www.headspace.com/andy-puddicombe) advises that in order to maintain sustainable focus it is imperative to keep a curious mindset. This resource might be useful to you during the uncertain times we are currently living in.