The comfort zone is a surprisingly dangerous place…
If you stay there for too long, you’ll get too comfortable…and before you know it, you’ll be 75 years old without ever really having lived.
Without having chased any of your dreams, pursued any of your passions or taken any risks. And as you rock back and forth on your armchair in front of the fireplace, you’ll wonder: what if?
What if I’d moved to Hong Kong, what if I’d asked her out, what if I’d taken that job.
And that what if? will keep you up at night, restlessly twisting and turning, fantasising about what could’ve been but never was because you were just too scared, like some sort of never-ending introspective nightmare. And then you’ll wake up – only to realise the nightmare is real.
This is (hopefully) exaggeration but I have recently arrived at the strong belief that we should do what scares us: what we think is impossible, insane or outrageous.
And I’ve found three compelling reasons as to why.
Reason 1: Building reference points
Every time you do something that scares you or something you previously thought impossible, your brain collects a new point of reference for future challenges.
For instance, I just got back from kite-surfing in Punta Chame, Panama.
When I started, I was definitely scared, because I can’t really swim…and definitely thought it would be impossible – because controlling a giant kite with one hand, resisting the pull of a 20-knot wind, while swimming with a giant kite-surf board in the other hand, then mounting the board mid-ocean, and then somehow maintaining balance while the wind tosses you around like a plastic bag should be impossible.
And actually, I never would have tried it if it weren’t for a point of reference I collected the week before: learning how to scuba dive in Taganga, Colombia. Again, something scary and ostensibly impossible – but I did it, and that point of reference gave me the confidence to try kite-surfing.
And now that I know kite-surfing is possible (because I went out and did it despite jelly fish stings, nearly drowning and shattering my knees), I have another point of reference, which I’ll use to tackle future challenges (like wind-surfing, coming up next in Costa Rica!)
Every time you collect a point of reference, you build up the courage and confidence to try something new and push the boat out even further, towards new, exciting and often more rewarding opportunities.
My personal collection of reference points goes way back to when I was 16, and had exactly zero points of reference – I thought almost everything was impossible or scary, because I’d never done anything “impossible” or scary before.
My first venture into the impossible/scary was quite conservative: I studied really hard to get into Set 2 maths at school (I was aiming for Set 1 but didn’t quite make it).
Nothing too exciting or adventurous…but I picked up my first point of reference and did something I didn’t think was possible.
Next it was studying hard to get 11 A*s in my GCSE exams. I was able to build on my previous reference point (studying to get into Set 2 maths) to push through the obstacles. When my brain said: “This is impossible, not going to work, you’re too dumb”…I remembered feeling the same way studying for Set 2 Maths, and told my brain: “Actually, shut up…you’ve done this before, you can do this again.”
And when at last I got 11 A*s, I had another point of reference to build on.
Next was starting a Young Enterprise company and building my own product. Again, impossible and scary but we ended up building a small product – despite not being very successful, it added another point of reference: “Hey, it’s possible to build a website and a product.”
So when I went on to start other businesses and projects, I could always build on those previous points of reference.
And over time, I’ve built a f*ck load of these points of reference.
I’ve done a lot of things I thought were impossible (I have the full list here): learning Spanish, getting into Cambridge, getting the highest mark at LSE, losing 24kg, getting a girlfriend, getting a six pack, having friends, starting a successful company, going travelling, paragliding, scuba diving, kite-surfing etc.
So now, when I eye up future challenges, I’m supported by a robust collection of reference points from the past…which makes any new challenges look much less scary.
As my collection continues to develop, I’m excited to see where it takes me and how far from Set 2 maths I can get.
So, even if this thing that seems impossible or scary to you isn’t inherently valuable, it still has future value in that you’ll pick up another reference point, and that reference point will help you surmount future challenges.
Reason 2: Expanding your possibility horizon
As you build up more and more reference points, you slowly realise more and more things are now possible – this expands your possibility horizon.
With an expanded possibility horizon, you have more options to choose from…pre-expansion, you might have settled for the boring Indian woman, the accountant’s job and playing squash. Post-expansion, however, you might realise that new things are possible: dating the European supermodel, the freelance graphic design job and kite-surfing.
This isn’t to suggest that one possibility is better than another (that’s obviously preference), but by expanding your horizon, you have more options – and are more likely to make the best choice for you.
Back when I was 16, for instance, I thought I was an introvert-for-life and permanently overweight.
But forcing myself into fear-inducing social situations, pushing myself physically and constantly learning new things, I discovered an entire universe of new possibilities. Now I can go out and date and make instant friends with complete strangers…I can box, go kite-surfing and take my top off at the beach…I can speak Spanish, learn Mandarin and study a Masters in Data Science.
All very exciting – but I never would’ve even known these things were possible had I stayed safely tucked inside my comfort zone, patting myself on the back for things I was already good at.
Reason 3: Learning your limits
But doing what scares you and what seems impossible can also help you find your limits.
This is a really f*cking important part of growing up.
It’s great that we tell kids they can be whatever they want to be, but we all have natural and environmental advantages and disadvantages.
Fundamentally, I do believe that given enough time, anyone can learn any skill – but if you want to do a PhD in Physics at Harvard and you have a sub-100 IQ…that’s gonna take a really long time, more time than real life can offer you.
And this is where we need to start drawing in our limits.
Do what scares you, expand your possibility horizon, give it your 100% fullest effort…but if your efforts aren’t successful, that’s kinda great, too – you’ve discovered your limits!
And this can help us refine our possibility horizon so we can focus and specialise as we get older.
For instance, a couple years ago, I was seriously looking at becoming a professional boxer.
Two weeks into my new training regime, however, and I fractured both feet. This alone wasn’t enough for me to give up but after the fractures became recurrent, I concluded that professional boxing was not for me – it was outside my possibility horizon.
The effort I would have had to put in to become a pro boxer just outweighed my desire to get punched in the face in a boxing ring.
This was my first limit. And I’m glad I found it: I could’ve wasted a lot of time pursuing a career that would’ve gone nowhere (most likely)…or I could’ve spent the rest of my life wishing I had given it a shot, imagining the life that could’ve been.
I’m happier knowing I tried and failed – and now I can move on with life, to focus more on things I’m better adapted to.
Slowly but surely, this process of experimentation – doing what scares you, doing what seems impossible – will refine your possibility horizon so you can then choose what to specialise in for later life.
PS: professional boxing might not be for me…but I’m still working towards an amateur career!