During my last visit to the doctor, as we were reviewing my treatment, he remarked about a particular area that while I had been making good progress, I seemed to have reached a plateau, a leveling off. While I wasn’t regressing, G-d Forbid, I wasn’t making progress either. He changed some prescriptions and told me to make some changes in diet, etc., to ‘kickstart’ more progress. In effect, he said, aside from the medication, I need to push myself more.
Even when struggling with a major illness, we can become complacent, thinking that what worked until now will continue work. It’s hard to do everything that’s necessary, and when we reach a stage where we’re managing, it’s natural to do continue doing what works.
In other words, while it’s hard to get into a new comfort zone, it may be harder to get out of it and do what we need to reach another new, and higher, comfort zone.
This constant struggle to adjust or move the parameters of a comfort zone applies to almost all areas of life. Consider an athlete who has a training routine, one which he or she follows rigorously and religiously. This routine has brought the athlete success, why alter it? The same applies to an artist. (Musicians might play the scales X number of times, for example, or playing certain tunes as exercises (jamming), as a way of staying in shape.)
Obviously, if success becomes less frequent, we have to examine not just the performance, but the practice. When we fall below a comfort zone, then we review our routine, and modify it.
But what about if we’re maintaining our level of success? What if staying in the comfort zone still works? Why should we make changes? Why should we push ourselves?
Aside from the fact that we achieved success, that we got into working comfort zone, by pushing ourselves, there’s also the fact that what was good enough yesterday isn't good enough today. And what’s good enough today won’t be good enough tomorrow. And that for two reasons: there are challenges and obstacles from outside. Our success will be challenged by competition, and the unexpected in life - positive or negative - will impact us, one way or another.
The second reason is internal: The plateaus in our lives are resting places, not dwelling places. The cliche, if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward is at least partially true. What is certainly true is that the status quo never stays static. We need look no further than our childhoods. How eager children are for experience. How dull ‘been there, done that’ becomes. Even as adults, we don’t lose that restless energy to be doing, to be making meaning.
So we have to adapt our routines. That doesn’t mean going from a hundred repetitions to ninety-nine. It means going to one hundred one. Or adding a new element to the routine. Pushing ourselves.
This concept of pushing ourselves, of not being satisfied when we’ve climbed high enough to reach a new plateau, applies not just to artistic endeavors. It applies to our jobs and professions. It applies to our ‘self-growth’ - our intellectual and emotional maturity. It applies to our relationships. We should not, perhaps dare not, settle into a comfort zone. Complacency begets boredom.
Of course, precisely because we’re in a comfort zone, we don’t always see how we’re stagnating. We need someone from the outside, someone we trust, to point out to us that we’ve spent enough time in this comfort zone. Time to begin the climb to the next one.
That often comes as a shock. We thought we were doing so well. We were. And we are. But we can do better. And since we can, we should. We may resist the doctor, coach, mentor, spouse. We may get angry or go into denial. But ultimately, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that, yes, we’re not pushing ourselves as hard as we can. We’re not achieving what we can. We’re doing things naturally, the ‘normal’ way. We’ve become satisfied and challenge-deprived, so to speak.
Sometimes when we realize we’ve been dwelling in a comfort zone too long, the impulse is to knock down all the walls and make radical changes. And yes, there are times when radical change is necessary. But usually we have to exit the same way we entered: one step at a time, building on an established routine, climbing one handhold at a time. If not, we may sabotage our journey, excuse a slipping back into the old comfort zone, even, perhaps especially, if it’s no longer adequate.
There’s another aspect to this: doing more, pushing ourselves, moving our comfort zones higher is in a sense a Divine obligation. Whether the area is our health, our profession, our relationships, our community, our learning (never stop learning), our spiritual growth, since there’s room for improvement, we must improve. In a sense, that’s one of our Divinely appointed tasks - to get out of our comfort zones and improve the world, beginning with the ‘small world’ - ourselves and those around us.
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