Life begins at the end of your comfort zone
– Neale Donald Walsch
When we’ve found that peaceful spot in our lives where everything is predictable and calm, we tend to avoid anything that is likely to disrupt the equilibrium.
Retiring from a busy professional life to the solitude of a quiet little village, with no pressures, deadlines or stresses, creates a very wide comfort zone. A zone that keeps me safe within its boundary.
But beyond that boundary is the world, and in that world are opportunities. And in those opportunities are learning and growth, both of which sustain my life.
After years of long days and nights filled with lesson planning, report writing and meetings, it was just too easy to slip into a much quieter existence.
A Cruise to Singapore Marked Retirement
I needed a tangible barrier to mark the end of work and the start of retirement, and a cruise was the perfect choice. Balmy days on deck by the pool, entertainment at night and an endless supply of food. The shore excursions were a bonus. The thought of going alone wasn’t an option, so I arranged for a friend to join me – her first cruise – and we sailed out of Sydney, destined for an exciting two weeks.
Our arrival back in Australia sealed the door on my working life securely shut.
But waking up back in the place I now call home left a gap somewhere deep within me. If I read about a country on my list of ‘must visit places’, I could imagine myself there. The thought of planning and packing were daunting enough, but the thought of meandering through unfamiliar cities and streets – alone – was unthinkable. The bands of my comfort zone were pulling tighter, with no apparent means of escape.
Then an opportunity arose to visit China with a group of like-minded people – all retired – and all around my age. It was the first organised tour I had ever done, and it turned out to be very successful – except that there were places I would have liked to have seen that were not included in the itinerary. But it was safe. The guides knew the country and the culture, but especially, they knew the language. It worked. But the places I didn’t see are sitting on the back-burner, just beyond my comfort zone.
My life has been a series of ‘just happened’ moments, and before leaving for the China trip, one of those moments emerged. While on the retirement cruise I had pre-booked a cruise for the following year and my travel buddy was going to join me. The best-made plans have a way of going awry, and true to form, they did. My travel buddy pulled out of the trip a few months later. Because we had booked together, I needed to change the booking, or pay the single supplement and face a very long cruise on my own. Without too much thought I swapped to a shorter cruise that would take me back to familiar territory, North America. Instead of sailing the next year, the new cruise was to leave a week after my return from China. I did it! Alone! And it worked. But it worked because I was on a cruise – everything was planned by someone else – I just had to show up and enjoy. Being a one-way cruise the destination landed me in a position to take a flight from Miami to San Francisco, my second home, and then Vancouver, my other second home, having spent almost a year in each place ten years ago. Familiar territory. Nothing much could go wrong. There were no cultural or language barriers and I knew my way around. A very successful trip, but something was still missing. The familiarity was a step back in time rather than a leap forward into the unknown. The bands of the comfort zone still held tight. And are still holding tight, but have stretched a little.
A plan is formulating for me to step outside the barrier and explore somewhere new and very different, with just a hint of the familiar. A friend has opened a Guest House in Laos and I have promised myself a trip to reconnect and see the award-winning venture of the Apple Guest House. But moving out of the comfort zone isn’t easy. It isn’t a matter of just flying to Laos and back. You can’t go that far without adding side trips to the other places on your list, like Vietnam and Penang. Every time I think I’ll just make the decision, plan the trip and actually book the flights, something grips me. Obviously, it’s the boundary of the comfort zone reigning me back in. While part of the trip will be familiar, like Penang where I spent two wonderful years a very long time ago, the unfamiliar will be in travelling alone, and I know how much the familiar places will have changed; being there as a tourist today will be very different to being there as a local back then.
Stretching the bands of the comfort zone are not easy. How do you get from the thinking stage to the going stage? And even if you do, how do you allay the fears building inside you, that you are stepping out over the edge? I skimmed through a book once called ‘Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway’ – too busy to read every word back then, but the title has acted as a springboard on many occasions since then. And in leaping into the unknown, despite the fears, I’ve usually come out the other side thinking ‘that wasn’t such a big deal’. The fears have a way of dissipating once you’ve made the decision, and once you’re immersed in the activity. One of the ways I’ve managed this is by remembering that breaking things down into smaller chunks makes the task more manageable. While the whole idea might seem overwhelming, starting with one aspect of it makes it seem a little more do-able.
It’s through planning that the big plan becomes more manageable.
By planning the different steps, a degree of confidence can emerge where there was only doubt and fear before, making a more tangible shape of the travel plans gelling in my mind.
Step 1: Make a list of the countries you want to see
Step 2: Gather as much information as possible on each place – feed the imagination and the passion – both of which will take another chunk out of the comfort zone boundaries.
Step 3: How many countries/cities can you adequately cover in one trip – e.g. Asia, or Europe, as separate trips? One long destination – several shorter ones.
Step 4: What options for accommodation exist in each country/city? Hotels/B&B/AirBnB/. Having the accommodation pre-booked takes a lot of angst out of the equation.
Step 5: What options for travel are there between countries? Instead of flying, consider a train or boat trip, providing a much more scenic option.
Step 6: Make the bookings, one at a time; pre-book each segment allowing extra time between flights etc. to avoid the stress of having to rush to get there. Extra time between flights can be used to catch up on journaling or organising photos.
Step 7: Pack… Pack light – travelling solo is easier if you’re not struggling with too much luggage. Pack less – being solo means you can wash and hang items in the bathroom at night. Roll the washing in a towel to squeeze out as much water as you can and chances are it will be dry by morning. You might need to pack a coat-hanger or invest in a travel clothesline, available at some discount or luggage stores. You might even consider a microfibre towel – super light and compact – depending on the accommodation you’ll be using.
Step 8: Take photos and keep a journal. The trials and tribulations, the highs and lows will inspire and motivate future trips, chipping away at the comfort zone with each picture and word.
And the real value of pushing the boundaries of our comfort zones is in the places we’ll see and the people we’ll meet.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes