Comfort Zones

effectiveness, philosophy

I

Last spring I found myself driving to another city’s mall with two guys I didn’t know very well, but considered friends nevertheless. Our city has a mall, but we didn’t want to go there. Not because our mall was missing some shopping opportunity, but because at our mall someone might have recognized us.

We didn’t want that to happen.

The atmosphere was tense. We were nervous. Some aloof part of me thought that it was really, really interesting how I could watch myself playing fancy metal footwork, trying to come up with reasons why carrying out our plan was a Bad Idea, how it would be dangerous or catastrophic to my reputation, or something like that. The rest of me was close to petrified.

I could feel my brain trying to argue for a side. It was trying to convince itself. It was trying to convince me. It was doing everything in its power to stop this from happening.

As a general principle, when you know on a rational level that everything will be OK, but your subconscious is still freaking out anyway, this is a good opportunity to become stronger. When you have cognitive dissonance, one part of your brain has to be wrong. In this case, it was definitely my emotional side. What we were doing wasn’t dangerous or catastrophic to my reputation, or anything like that.

It was only going to be uncomfortable.

“Only.”

And so that’s how I found myself wandering around the mall, offering high-fives to people as I walked by, posing like Superman (and singing the theme song) as I rode the elevators. I got some weird looks, sure, but that was to be expected. Honestly, I’m pretty good at being ridiculous at public; this was just getting warmed up.

My stated goal for the day was to “free-style rap at strangers at the mall”. Mind you, not “try to free-style rap” or even “free-style rap at as many people as possible”. Those both have loopholes. No, my success for the day would be evaluated entirely on whether or not I free-style rapped at anyone.

After asking a few people whether or not I could (they all said no), and after a few other false starts, I managed it. I cornered some people behind me on the escalator and just did it.

They laughed at me. It sucked both as a rap and as an experience. I’ve never done it since.

But I was glad it happened.

II

I wanted to share that anecdote because I think it illustrates two really important concepts, one of which we’ll save for next time. But the first of which is this:

If you stop and think about it, the number of different activities that humans do is staggering. The space of human experience is overwhelmingly huge: from collecting stamps to watching videos of trains to kinky sex to composing music to being an astronaut, with probably literally non-enumerable activities in-between. And any given person does, what, maybe 100 of them regularly?

How many of them have you experienced? How many of them are you even comfortable with?

When considered from this point of view, the likelihood of you doing any of the best human activities is vanishingly small. It’s approximately 0%. In fact, human experience space is so big that you probably wouldn’t even be comfortable considering doing any of the best human experiences.

The best things in life are outside of your comfort zone.

Following through on the logical implications of this, it’s pretty likely to find better things than you already know about with just a little bit of exploration; it is an acknowledgment of this point that my friends and I were out in that mall doing weird things. We were attempting to systematically expand our comfort zones, in a desperate search to enrich our lives.

There is a poor argument to be made here, something along the lines of “but I’ve already looked around, and the things I do now are the best, so there’s no reason to continue searching”. This is a bad argument because Math: even if you spent your entire life trying 10 new things a day, and we assume that everyone in history had one unique experience, there are still 370,000 experiences you didn’t try for every one you did. If you spend your entire life trying new things, best-case1 you’d try 0.0003% (read: pretty much 0%) of stuff.

That’s if you’re trying.

On the other hand, the chance of finding something better (assuming you’re picking things completely at random (and ignoring the status-quo bias)), is about 50%. One thing out of every two is better than what you already do.

Hey, that rhymes! If you want a mantra for this concept, there you go!

“One thing out of every two is better than what you already do.”

It’s weird to think that improving your life is really as easy as trying new things. Except that it’s not. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Trying new things is easy only on paper. Doing things outside of your comfort zone is literally petrifying.

Don’t believe me? Try free-style rapping at a stranger in the mall.

But hey, you never know. You might just like it.

One thing out of every two.


  1. If our numbers are close to a lower bound, which I’d doubt very much.