It’s a little disconcerting how all of my initial writing is in some way about myself, maybe that is the narcissist in me. However, I do want to talk about something that I believe affects a lot of the people around the world that I’ve met and that is the idea of staying within their comfort zone.
I want to be clear that I’m going to be a bit off the grain here, even though my position may be lacking in scientific research. I believe there is a pretty obvious consensus in historical events that support my point.
It’s not unusual to receive advice from business elites or self help gurus that the best way to improve yourself is to step out of your comfort zone. However, it’s often stated that we learn less optimally if we step too far out of our comfort zones. My contention is that sometimes it’s necessary to take a leap of faith, remove ourselves from our comfort zones, and force ourselves to adapt.
There is an oft-cited study from 1908 conducted by two psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson. The basic premise of the experiment is that they built a habit in mice by reinforcing the choices between a black and white card set on different paths by giving an electric shock when the mice chose the black card. They found that with a much higher shock, the mice learned faster than if the shock was low. The highlight of the conclusion, however, is that the mice learned even faster when the shock was at an optimal level, when it was not too high or too low.
This has been construed by many as evidence that we as humans learn the best when we do not stray too far from our comfort zones. The idea is that when we’re under too much stress or duress, it becomes more difficult for us to learn. This idea is often reiterated on major publications and many of them cite the same report and repeat the same principles.
My contention to this ideology is the fact that there is proof of humans achieving greater success when they are able to meet the challenge whilst under pressure.
Break the cauldrons and sink the boats
I recently spoke with a friend and colleague in which we were discussing the mindset of a person when it comes to achieving goals. He told me the story of the Chinese General Xiang Yu (232-202 BC) and what the general did during the Battle of Julu.
His acts during this battle are the sources of several Chinese idioms, one being 破釜沉舟, which directly translates to “Break the cauldrons and sink the boats”. The rough meaning of this is to cut off all means of retreat thereby forcibly creating a point of no return. General Xiang Yu accomplished this by ordering his troops to destroy the troop’s cooking utensils, scuttling the boats they had used to fjord the river, and disposing of all but three day’s worth of food supplies. It’s a repeated act throughout history where a choice is made to cut off all means of retreat. He had given his men a choice to fight and win, or die trying.
It isn’t possible for us to prove that it was General Xiang’s decision that made it possible for his troops to win against their enemies. What we do know however, is that General Xiang and his army were able to win against overwhelming odds. So much so that a second Chinese idiom from the battle is 以一當十, which has a meaning of “Pitting the strength of one against ten”.
If you really want something, ask yourself, are you really doing everything in your power to acquire that something?
Idioms and actions like these are seen throughout history and in various cultures. Something Western readers will be more familiar with relate to backing an animal into a corner or drawing a line in the sand. Similarly, there are known cases of hysterical strength, incidents where a human displays extreme strength, such as lifting a car.
We can even look at war refugees, or illegal immigrants. Take a second to consider what is being given up when they arrive to the decision of leaving everything they’ve ever known behind. The idea that having a do or die choice forces the decider to do everything within their power to survive can almost be considered common knowledge.
This is what I mean when I tell people to get out of their comfort zone. If you really want something, ask yourself, are you really doing everything in your power to acquire that something? Have you truly pushed yourself to your limits?
I had given myself an option to fail before my feet ever hit the ground.
The reason I wanted to write about this subject, like I said at the beginning of this article, is for a personal reason. I had always planned to move to China and I had a very safe plan in place to set that plan in motion. Not everything goes according to plan and as such, I moved here much earlier than I had planned. Regardless, I told myself that this is what I wanted and I was here to make that a reality.
However, I also always had a Plan B. Some of you may be thinking that’s obvious, it’s just smart planning. It recently occurred to me that Plan B wasn’t smart planning, it was safe planning. I had given myself an option to fail before my feet ever hit the ground.
My point of course is not that you should set yourself up to fail. What I am trying to iterate is that you need to know exactly what decision you are making. Every single plan should be in support of yourself reaching the goals of that decision. If you can force yourself into a mindset where failing is not an option, then you only have a single option remaining.