Don’t Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Where did the “comfort zone” come from? It seems of recent vintage, although the combination of words may have been influenced by thermostat marketing. From the 2004 New Yorker story “The Comfort Zone,” chronicling an episode from 1970s America:

“My father came home on cool nights to complain about the house’s ‘chill.’ My mother countered that the house wasn’t cold if you were doing housework all day. My father marched into the dining room to adjust the thermostat and dramatically point to its ‘Comfort Zone,’ a pale-blue arc between 72 and 78 degrees.”

The story traces a back-and-forth between the couple. What’s striking is how both the father and the mother have good arguments for setting the “right” temperature. A current reading would probably scold the father for being intransigent and praise the mother for her support of hard work.

Should he have stepped outside (the most common phrase used with “comfort zone”) his comfort zone? The house was cold to someone who had been in the heat, but normal for someone who had been working in it all day. Instead of dogma about “your comfort zone”, we should see that what’s comfortable depends on the person’s situation, and that having comfort – a temperate house, a relaxing chair from which you can reset your brain by staring off into space – is not always bad or “safe” (regrettable that this word has negative connotations now).

I thought of this New Yorker vignette when I recently visited Mammoth Cave in Brownsville, Kentucky. It was in the high 80s F outside, but once we neared the cave’s entrance, cool air wafted over us. The cave itself was a constant 54 F. After a working up a sweat from walking and ducking through the passages, we barely noticed the temperature that just minutes ago had seemed “cold.”

Maybe we had stepped outside our etc. But that 54 F became comfortable too, and it felt good to go back to the 80 F temps from before. We stepped back inside the comfort zone, one could say, and it felt good. Despite having trekked through a 54 F cave, I wouldn’t say that it is now within my “comfort zone,” though – it would still feel weird at first, and I wouldn’t want to stay forever.

Anymore, “comfort zone” is a dark place for peddlers of corporate management theory or lifestyle coaching. It’s not hard to see why – you need to get out of it before buying into their programs, which presuppose that:

  1. everyone benefits from the new stimuli of doing “uncomfortable” tasks
  2. doing “uncomfortable” things is voluntary – a matter of “want to” not “have to”
  3. it’s possible to fundamentally change someone’s attitude, usually from a “negative” to a “positive” outlook.

# 2 sticks with me. I think of how many people involuntarily venture beyond what a life coach would euphemistically call their “comfort zones” just to survive – working a job for which they’re overqualified, having to apply for unemployment insurance, raising a child for the first time. They’re constantly having new experiences that aren’t comfortable and that they may not want to repeat, but if evaluated through the lens of “comfort zone” behavioral analysis or Internet discussion, would likely be “ordinary” people, “trapped” in 9-5 work and unwilling to “step outside the comfort zone” by skydiving, doing improv comedy, or being put in charge of some intramural game.

Indeed, the stakes of voluntarily ditching the vaunted “comfort zone” through such activities are often low. I can remember doing many such extroverted activities to feel more comfortable, only to see the same feelings of anxiety crop up again over the years in similar situations. The experiences were not transferable, and I questioned their value as anything other than lingo in practice. 

For the father coming home to his thermostat in the 1970s, having a literal Comfort Zone on his thermostat was probably a relief from the pressures and annoyances of work. It’s ok to rest, to slip back into what we’re comfortable doing sometimes; otherwise we’re tasked with reinventing ourselves around the clock, “stepping it up” to meet some unfulfiling ideal, and heading toward burnout.


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Kentucky journal: Twilight

I’m writing from the WordPress for Android app, in an apple orchard in Kentucky twilight. My cellular connection is EDGE and there isn’t any light except for this screen and a few stars.


A flower from earlier in the day

I just blew a bug off my screen. There are jarflies squawking and dogs howling. The flowers from earlier, once striped, are dark for the night.

13 years ago, I started blogging by writing a poem for my school website, on a Windows 98 PC a few yards from here. The site has moved and the poem survives only on a framed scrap or newspaper, in a story announcing its receipt of a $75 prize.

What did that me, 13, think about when making that verse? A book, sure – maybe Moby-Dick, which he had finished a few months before. But this environment, too. An apple just fell to the ground nearby; gravity is a cliché, but inspiration still lives here.

“Information”: a hazardous category

“Information” is a pretentious word. So are its kin, “data” and “data points” (???) If bad writing is about things that are not concrete, then info-data is its muse.

It’s a fancy word for “stuff,” in the end. Imagine the following slogans recast to show how trite info-data is:

-”the stuff age”
-”stuff technology’
-”big stuff”
-”stuff analytics”

Some uses – “mobile data” – are more concrete. But look: it’s scary that a basic synonym probes the shallowness of info-data. It’s about air, about ideas that are festooned with flowery words like “solutions” and “digital” that themselves are blank, yet somehow add more character (“solution ” is at least evaluative; info-data is nothingness, less material even than “stuff” and its vivid homophones).


The Information Age in all its glory

Why resort to info-data? Because computers and the industries around them lack a clear reason for existing.

The Internet is an outgrowth of the telegraph that has done as much bad (spying, fake social media personae, argument for no reason, stress over minor things like email) as good (new tools for writing, reading, and chatting).

Computers themselves are often justified as “productivity” tools, but “productivity” is a ritual, not a result. New jobs and issues are created to feed the hunger for “productivity,” but it can’t be sated.

Like the Internet, financial services, and 100-hour workweeks, computers keep recreating the need for productivity, rather than satisfying its requirements. We’re solving a problem that isn’t there – maybe that’s why “solutions” is meaningless and a crutch.

Info-data is even more generic and, well, insincere. Something like info-data has always existed for humans, but it has enjoyed a moment now that it is associated with smartphones and PCs. Are “analog” media like books repositories of info-data? Why didn’t the invention of the codex form kick off The Information Age?

Whereas books have clear boundaries and purposes – a novel for leisure reading; a textbook for education – info-data media do not. The Web has no purpose, and computers, while no generating info-data, are little more than extensions of analog tools for gaming and writing.

The info-data lingo makes computers and the Internet seem profound, like clear breaks with what came before. But this language is vague, and it reveals summering so ordinary that terms for the most ancient, mundane things – information, data – have to be put into service because there’s nothing else there.

Blogs and “solutions”: The two sides of my writing

I like the word “blog.” It’s earthy – it sounds like “bog” and “log,” so it has the air of the swamp and the forest in it. But I hate the word “solutions” – I think of cleaning and stinky liquids, which isn’t the intent of the writer. Plus, calling a thing a “solution” is pre-judging it – what if it doesn’t work? What is the, um, problem it is solving (or is “solution” now so far from “solve” that asking this question is dumb?)?

Blogging (stirs up pictures of a lumberjack, writing) is what I turn to when I am not solutionizing for websites. The list of cliches and meaningless strings of words I write for clients is scary. Yes, there’s “core competencies” and “best-of-breed” (are we talking about horses?). But there’s even hipsters ones like “pure play” (not fun like it lets on).

Humans adapt quickly, so even this sticky vocabulary is easy to use after mere days of all-day practice. What comes from such handiwork? Well, “writing solutions” – I wasn’t joking when I told an editor that his title should be “director of editorial solutions,” since that’s how he’s seen. I don’t mind making these “solutions” – it’s easy. The phrases are readymade and thinking isn’t always needed, at least not in the same way that it is for creative writing or a letter to the editor.


An ink solution or, you know, a pen.

My own blogging, though, isn’t a “solution,” and I doubt it is for a lot of other bloggers. The downfall of blogging has been foreseen – it won’t survive social media, no one reads long-form anymore, etc. But unlike Facebook et al, a blog is not a facade. It is not kept up to send a political or social message to everyone else – “look how great I am!” “here I am in Rio!, look upon my successes and weep!” – and lots of blogging, esp. from the pre-Facebook era, is sad and weirdly (to our eyes now) not curated. There’s lots of chaff with that wheat – where did it go?

Blogging has its place as the antidote to social networks, “writing solutions” (business papers, Sadya Nadella’s wordy emails, LinkedIn profile spam), and general jargon. Why is it so easy to write clear prose and be direct in a blog, while grinding through a paper or even tweeting something suitably amazing is labor-intensive? Maybe we’re more sincere on our blogs, and that’s why we keep updating them, to give us at least one outlet for our real thoughts, for problems and not necessarily…”solutions.”


20 things I won’t be saying about tech in 20 years

I wish I had spent more time on my smartphone.

I wish I had liked more things on Facebook.

I wish I had started/perpetuated more arguments on Reddit.

I wish I had watched more videos on YouTube.

I wish I had had Google services overlaid on my field of vision on a beautiful day.

I wish I had Android installed on my wristwatch.

I wish I had taken a firmer stance in the iOS/Android wars.

I wish I had spent more time watching TV surfing the Web.

I wish I had spent more time talking to Google Now/Siri/Cortana.

I wish I had engaged in more lively discussion on Xbox Live.

I wish I had learned more JavaScript libraries.

I wish I had “mastered” email.

I wish I had listened to more suggested albums and consensus “classics,” rather than what I enjoyed.

I wish I had listened to “big data,” in other words.

I wish I had gotten more search engine traffic, and ranked more highly against top keywords.

I wish I had “disrupted” more people’s livelihoods.

I wish I had entrusted more of my personal files to for-profit corporations.

I wish I had connected my kitchen appliances to Google.

I wish I had ensured that all apps I used followed strict design guidelines.

I wish I had learned more lifehacks for things I barely do.


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