I’m the black sheep of my family in many ways, including the fact that my sisters and parents have all relocated to California, while I stubbornly remain on the east coast. Because I’m not often at family gatherings to update everyone on my life, my parents share news and updates. A couple years ago, my dad told me that when people ask him what I’m up to, he responds, “Some people take the road less travelled. Janet is not even on that road.”
There have been ample opportunities for me to lead a “normal” life with a steady job and a fairly secure lifestyle, but for reasons beyond my understanding, I’ve always opted to do things that took me a bit outside my Comfort Zone. It eventually just became a habit or perhaps a compulsion.
Before I continue, I would like to make the distinction between going outside one’s comfort zone and acting with reckless abandon. I’m not encouraging people to risk their financial, physical, or emotional well-being. What I hope to inspire in people is the courage to do something that scares you just a little bit.
My first adventure outside my comfort zone was after high school. While many of my friends attended schools in nearby Boston (There’s apparently one or two decent colleges there.), I wanted to go someplace new and different. For a hot second, I considered going to Université Laval in Quebec City, but my classes would have been all in French, and I didn’t think I would survive. I finally settled on Concordia University in Montreal. My classes would be in English, but I would still get an entirely new experience. I rented an apartment instead of living in the dorm, and in addition to making sure my bills got paid and I fed myself, I also needed to work a bit harder to make friends. I didn’t have roommates to keep me company or a food hall full of students to eat meals with. It was uncomfortable, but I did it.
I graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communication Studies and thanks to an internship I did the previous summer, I was offered a job at a TV station in Quebec City. Though the station broadcasted in English, a good amount of my work conversations would be done in French. As much as I had hoped to become fluent while living in Montreal, I got lazy. Now I had no choice.
I remember being frustrated when I couldn’t understand someone or had to have someone repeat information over and over again. My co-workers seemed to like me well enough, but I could tell I was a weak link on the team because of the language barrier. Part of me was grateful when my one-year contract was up, and it was time to go back to America.
I moved back in with my parents, which was way too far inside my Comfort Zone, and six months later, I decided journalism could be put on the back burner. I packed up a few things and moved to Nantucket “for the summer.” This is a running joke on the island. If you ask people how they ended up on Nantucket, many will say, “Oh yeah. I came for the summer xx years ago.”
Interestingly, after a tumultuous first summer, I found myself in a 9-to-5 job that gave me the only “normal” professional experience I can remember. It was nice while it lasted—a short three years—and then I was off again. I saved up some cash to get me through the winter, gave my notice and decided to start a full-service pet sitting business.
I had never owned a dog, I had never owned a business, and it was a service that did not yet exist on Nantucket. I had no idea if there was a market for it or if I could make enough money to support myself. Looking back on it, I don’t know why it seemed like a good idea, but the entrepreneurial goddesses were kind to me, and it worked out great...until I got burnt out and had no exit strategy.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see now that the real problem was that I had found my new Comfort Zone. I was afraid to hire employees, so I could grow. I was afraid to close the business. I was afraid of pivoting to exclusive summer clients that would pay more money, but also be more high maintenance. More than anything else, I was afraid of not knowing what I would do next. I started pet sitting as a place holder for my next career, and now four years later, I STILL had no idea what I would do next.
So, I did what I don’t recommend anyone does...I let someone else make the decision for me. My boyfriend at the time was tired of Nantucket and wanted to go somewhere else. I told him to pick a place and I would follow. He chose New York and that fall we packed up a carload and left Nantucket for what I thought would be forever but ended up being six months. That’s a whole other story...
I was 32 when I arrived in New York City, and all my previous trips outside my comfort zone were a sad introduction to the what I would experience in the Big Apple. Now that it is far enough in the rearview mirror, I can remember with fondness the brief time I spent there, but the truth is it was an endless uphill slog during which I reaped very little accept a lifetime supply of humility and a superhero’s stamina for living outside my Comfort Zone.
But here’s the thing. After spending so much of my life—the last 5 years in particular—outside my Comfort Zone, it now feels normal. What all these adventures have done is slowly enlarge my Comfort Zone and give me the ability to feel the discomfort without immediately running for cover or becoming paralyzed. I feel the anxiety and fear, AND I can ground myself and explore my options, so I make the best choice for myself instead of reaching for the “easy” way out.
At the end of last year, a friend reached out to me to tell me she was leaving her job and I should consider applying. “It’s a secure job and pays really well for what it is,” she said.
I’ll be honest, my life choices have taken their toll, and there was something deliciously appealing about stepping into a job with steady and secure income. But I also knew the job wouldn’t make me happy, and I would immediately begin plotting my escape, which was unfair to the organization and me. I politely declined to apply.
And that is the power of being able to exist and sit outside your Comfort Zone. You can maintain focused on your values, goals and what’s really important to you, instead of being blinded by anxiety and making a choice driven by fear.
There are so many people living bigger and more exciting lives than I am. When I look back on the life choices I’ve made, they don’t seem all that extraordinary in the grand scheme of things. But all of them were hard for me at the time and made me uncomfortable, but I did it anyway. And that has made all the difference.