Sometimes I’ll ponder a topic for weeks or months before something clarifies my thinking and I can write about it (hopefully!) coherently. Lately I’ve been thinking about my life during the 1990s. A child of a small midwestern town, I moved to Silicon Valley in 1991. Those years in the wild west business atmosphere of Silicon Valley during the early Internet years, and the proximity to the magical San Francisco, before homeownership in the area was beyond the reach of mere mortals, was a transformative time for me. I was introduced to jazz by a friend who truly understood the art form and my life is considerably better for it. I began to take my love of photography seriously. Cycling through the foothills on the weekends, overnight trips to Monterey, hiking San Francisco neighborhoods where there was something new and interesting around every corner – every day was a lifestyle that I hadn’t known I was missing.
During those years I began to understand why I’m more comfortable in cities than small towns, why I’m a morning person and not a night person, why transit and urban planning matter, and how creative expression is vital for mental and emotional well-being. In other words, I began figuring myself out in a way that would not have been possible if I hadn’t left home.
“Step out of your comfort zone” is oft-repeated advice that we often accept as gospel. But aren’t there times when stepping IN to our comfort zone is what we need?
While I’ve been pondering these thoughts, I came across an essay from Bright Wall Dark Room that was shared on the website of the late Roger Ebert (if you are a movie-lover, RogerEbert.com is an oasis of movie reviews, news and essays). The essay, by Kara Shroyer, is probably not for everyone. On the surface, it’s about how sexuality is portrayed in film, specifically in the 2002 Steven Shainberg film Secretary. But it’s really about love and self-awareness. I was especially moved by this passage:
When we think of pain, what usually comes to mind is unproductive pain. It’s pain without purpose or reason; it is senseless, violent, and usually traumatic. Unproductive pain is self-serving, self-perpetuating, and chaotic. …. And then there’s productive pain. I’ve never given birth, but many of my friends have, so I’ve heard a lot about this concept: that there is good pain, pain that tells you, “This hurts like hell, but something good’s going to come of it!” Productive pain tells your body what resources it needs to heal, tells you how far you can run or how much you should carry. Productive pain brings resolution. Inside a relationship, productive pain happens when your weaknesses get down and dirty with your partner’s weaknesses. Productive pain is sacrifice and compromise. If love—and the making of it—is the ultimate creative act, then, like all creative acts, it will require several drafts, each one a small death (“la petite mort”) to self in favor of the other.
The idea of “productive pain vs unproductive pain” is the perfect phrase to summarize my own thinking. While I romanticize those years I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, there was pain associated for me and the larger world. The company I worked for had management issues that led to staff turnover of 50% per year for a time. Political extremism led to more hand-wringing over Oval Office shenanigans than productive policy discussions. Real estate prices in the San Francisco Bay Area were already approaching soul-crushing levels, causing me to finally give up and move away in 2000. The prospering economy turned out to be less substantial than we believed – myself and many others were laid off in 2001, though the writing was on the wall long before that.
Some of that pain was productive, some was unproductive. My struggle with deciding to leave the Bay Area and move across the country was difficult and took me off course for a while, but it was ultimately productive pain, all part of the journey of self-awareness that led me to meeting the woman who became my wife.
Understanding our unique strengths and weaknesses is more productive than discomfort for discomfort’s sake. I was lucky enough to find that sweet spot of culture and climate that invited me to figure out who I am. It better prepared me for things that came later and gave me some insight into what pain is productive for me and what isn’t. Without that self-awareness, aren’t we at risk of being trapped in a cycle of unproductive pain? We’re not all going to be rock stars or neurosurgeons; finding a path that’s right for you is more important than pursuing a challenge just because it’s difficult. Sometimes, the road not taken is not taken for good reason; you’ll be better served by traveling your own road than someone else’s.
The next time someone advises you to “step outside your comfort zone,” ask yourself first if that is a productive route that develops or utilizes your strengths. Whether you’re acting in a play or starting a business, turning away from your own needs rarely helps anyone. In that case, maybe some time IN your comfort zone is what you need. You can’t step out of your comfort zone until you understand exactly what your comfort zone is.