A few weeks ago, I found myself in a situation that located my heart firmly in my throat. As I stood behind a piano on a stage for the first time in years, I wondered what the heck I had done? How could I possibly have agreed to this? Leading music from piano used to feel completely comfortable for me, but after five years of leading only with my voice, this no longer felt okay. In fact, my brain was interpreting it as the exact opposite of okay. It might as well have been a sabre-tooth tiger crouching for attack.
During rehearsal, feeling entirely overwhelmed and very much in-over-my-head, this fully-grown, mature person actually contemplated faking sick and running out of the building.
And then a counterintuitive thought began forming in my mind: “What if this is good for me?”
My response? “Oh no you don’t, brain. You don’t get to re-frame this horrid situation into something useful!!”
Like most people, I prefer to be good at things. I desire to do things well. I gravitate toward situations where I feel confident, in my wheelhouse and capable. While this sounds entirely reasonable, if we’re not aware, we can easily begin to live small, fearful of failure and avoidant of opportunities that call us away from our field of expertise and into the realm of average.
There’s no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone.” —Anonymous
This favoured quote of mine has recently come back to bite me. Previously, I’d applied it almost exclusively to personal growth, healing and ideas pertaining to identity. But I’ve begun to recognize that it applies, also, to intentionally opening ourselves to experiences that aren’t a sure thing in terms of success—like playing sub-par piano in a venue full of people.
There are seasons in life when it’s wise to seek and accept comfort. And, there are seasons for growth when it’s essential for your overall well-being to put yourself out there; to leave the realm of exceptional and be completely mediocre for a while…or even straight up awful.
Your brain might fight you on this, but the truth is, it’s healthy to step outside of our comfort zones, to try something new, to go back to beginner. Maybe this looks like engaging a hobby you haven’t explored in a long time. Maybe it means signing up for a Spanish course. Maybe it means being brave with your words, knowing they will rock the boat. Maybe it looks like auditioning for a part in a musical or joining a sports team. Maybe it means leaving a successful career to pursue a dream.
This past year, awakened to the call of adventure, I sought change. For almost two decades, I worked as an elementary school teacher in the same school. I knew my colleagues. I knew the rules. I knew the norms. I knew the larger school community. I knew the families. I knew where the art supplies were stored. I knew who had extra coffee pods when I ran out. I knew the best times to photocopy in order to avoid waiting. I knew that my administration (my bosses) supported me and my sometimes wildly-off-roading brain children. I felt trusted. They knew I worked hard and cared deeply for my kids each year, and I didn’t have to prove myself. My classroom felt like a second home.
So why in the world would I decide to leave the known for the unknown? Why leave expert behind? Why opt for uncomfortable?
Because I want to stay awake. While it’s comforting to know the ropes and to be the expert, when we’ve done the same thing for a long time, the ‘challenging’ becomes the ‘mundane.’ When we are accustomed to the point that things no longer require our rapt attention, we can become blind; we fall asleep. Though I have such affection for my now ‘former’ school and colleagues, I had a longing for what was beyond the shore. (Moana, I get you. Totally.) I have an intense longing to keep growing and learning. To pay attention. Going back to beginner helps us to see again. To appreciate the details. To stay awake in our lives.
Because I want freedom from fear. Upon hearing my decision to embrace a new adventure, many people asked “but what about your pension?” and other such questions. When we rely on circumstances and structures for our safety, whether financial, social, or otherwise, the idea of leaving those comfort zones can make us fearful. If we make ourselves beholden to the known, we become slaves to it. Engaging change— trusting God that our needs will be met and that we can successfully navigate the transitions—allows us to step out of fear. To be clear, I’m as careful and rigid as they come when it comes to finances and responsibilities, so I’m not advocating leaping blindly. It’s only smart to check your gear before launching yourself over the edge. But then…launch yourself over the edge! Trust the process even if it feels like free-fall for a bit. Step out and leave fear in the rear-view mirror.
Because I Want A Strong Brain. Left to their own devices, our brains are lazy. Once they build pathways and make necessary connections, they typically settle into auto-pilot. It no longer takes any thought to complete a task. Think about driving a familiar route—it’s possible to get there and not even remember driving, because our brains know exactly where we are going.
Our brains are also risk-averse. In my classroom, you’ll often hear me saying: “if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not risking. If you’re not risking, you’re not growing.” I share frequently with my students that grades are not necessarily an indication of hard work. Effort counts for so much! In my opinion, an average “C” that has cost you something in terms of effort, risk, hard work, perseverance and courage is far more valuable than something that was easy. Sure, we love to see a report card of “straight As” but if those were easy As that came with little to no effort, then suddenly, they look a little more brassy and a lot less gold.
In order to continue growing and strengthening our brains, we have to do things differently. Take a different road home. Brush our teeth with the opposite hand. Try something new. As much as we might think we like comfort, our brains need and ultimately appreciate being forced to work. (If you’re a brain nerd like me, read this.)
Because I want to say YES to the call. Some people might refer to it as the writing on the wall. Some might call it guidance. For me, it’s usually God’s voice. No, not his audible, booming Charlton-Heston-God-voice, but that still, small voice inside me. That voice that could be mistaken for my own thoughts, except the thoughts carry a different kind of weight. A kindness and an exhortation. An impact far greater than my own meandering thoughts. This is what propelled my decision toward a new adventure.
More than a year ago, I sensed that something would be shifting; that it was time for a change. I pursued various leads that seemed good to me, but in the end, they were not the thing. And then I stumbled on to a particular school website that nearly took my breath away. The mission statement and core values mirrored my own. The educational philosophy sounded like me. I recognized in an instant that this was the thing. And so I waited. I checked the career opportunities page regularly as I waited for my job to be posted. The process was rigorous and filled with ease all at once. As each new door appeared before me, I simply walked through it. Read Door of Hope.
While I have one thousand years of teaching experience and ‘know’ many facts about my new educational home, I will also be navigating lots of unknowns—older students, new colleagues, distinct norms and mores. At this point, I hardly know where the light switch is in my own classroom! But still, I know in my knower that this change is right and necessary. And though I’ll feel like a beginner for a little while, all of the unknowns will soon become known.
I’ll conclude with another of my guiding life quotes:
Anything that I’ve ever done that was ultimately worthwhile initially scared me to death.” ~Anonymous
Truth. Though seemingly paradoxical, to live fully and richly, there are times when we have to step outside of our comfort zones. Nope, it’s not comfortable. But oh-so worth it.