They say life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I don’t know who “they” are, but I have a feeling they might be on to something. If “they” are right, then what’s up with this day-to-day routine that most of us are stuck living in?
Let’s rewind a decade, back to my days of braces and bad haircuts. Picture this: I was an awkward middle schooler, struggling to fit in with my peers, whose main concern was the size of their Juicy Couture bags. I felt like a fish out of water trying to navigate the strange sea of social circles. In my head, I was bursting with thoughts and ambition, but on the outside, I probably seemed like a wide-eyed girl, afraid to open my mouth.
One summer, my best friend (my only real friend at the time) convinced me to go to camp with her. Normally, this would have sent me sprinting in the opposite direction. But something deep inside me knew I had to go. So off I went, unknowingly headed toward an experience that would change the way I saw myself. By the end of that summer, I was swinging from the ropes course, flying down the zipline, and doing flips into the lake. At night, I would sit and talk to my bunkmates for hours on end, so vulnerable and with an open heart, they heard things about me nobody else knew, and suddenly I felt so much less alone.
I had discovered the art of making real connections with people, and found people who liked me for me. And that felt great.
I don’t remember feeling like a wildly new person; I couldn’t see how impactful that camp experience had been. My mom, on the other hand, says she saw such positive changes in me and that fall, I joined the clubs I was so fearful to enter the school year before, I stopped caring what other people thought, and started doing what made me happy, and for that, I became a better, bolder person. The person I was inside was finally shining through the outside. Camp had brought out the me in me.
This past year, I had that same nagging feeling that something was missing in my life. Don’t get me wrong: I was happy; my grades were great; my friends were better; and, as a college Junior, I was fully in the groove. Yet I had this irrepressible desire to travel; to see the world. But I had never left North America before. I had no idea what it meant to be a traveler.
I could have studied abroad in with my friends and taken the comforts of Penn State with me on a PSU-sponsored program. Instead I signed up for Semester at Sea, an enriching study abroad program that would require me to live on a ship for four months while circumnavigating the globe. (I had never even been on a boat before!) I was nervous but the more I thought about it, the more I knew I needed to break out of my comfort zone and do something that would challenge me.
I realize how easy it would have been to back out, just because I was so scared or because I was going to places that would be as unfamiliar as unfamiliar gets. But then again, I’m sure you’ve heard that saying about the path less travelled. The route really does make a difference.
Four months after embarking on the scariest, luckiest, most beautiful journey of my life so far, I returned home a different person. I had seen the Great Wall of China, rode down the Ganges River, and climbed Cape Town’s Table Mountain. When I left home, I was nervous to take the subway alone. In Japan, I roamed the streets of Tokyo until dawn, with unprecedented confidence that I would figure out the metro system. A few months earlier, I would have had a panic attack in a local flea market. In China, I aggressively haggled at the knock off sunglass stands and scored myself some great new “Ray-Bans.” At home, I avoided any type of car ride that exceeded five hours. In Morocco, I sat on a bus for nine hours to get to the Sahara desert just to see the Milky Way open up in the sky above me.
I hadn’t just broken out of my comfort zone; I had shattered all its windows and demolished all its walls. My perspective was fresh and new. I finally felt alive.
On that journey I made — or rather, re-made — two promises to myself that I knew I would keep when I got home.:
- I would never let myself be influenced by the opinions of others again; and
- I would make a conscious and consistent effort to try new things.
And so far, those two promises have worked out pretty well. “They” say it’s like riding a bike, as though learning how to ride a bike is something you’ll only ever have to do once. I don’t buy it. I think as children we learn these big life lessons, then when it comes time to grow up and be an adult, we forget how to apply them…or maybe we need to change our approach a little so we can apply them in a new setting.
Here’s what I’ve learned: You don’t have to go around the world to break out of your comfort zone. You can start right now.
Try a new workout. Cook something different for dinner. Take a walk in a park you’ve never been to before. Watch the news instead of “The Good Wife.” Or go for a walk and watch the sunset when you’re not on vacation (Isn’t that a funny thing?! The sun sets everywhere; we’re allowed to watch it from our front doorstep even on a busy workday!)
Even little things can push us to become better, more aware human beings. The gap between who we are and who we want to be is only as big as we make it.