The story from inside and outside
The comfort zone gets a terribly bad press. You only have to look at a selection of the graphics associated with it doing the rounds of the Internet. We should be leaving it behind, we are told. Life, where the magic happens, is outside it and we really must get out of there. And yet what most of us want, really, is to be comfortably off – not to have to struggle to make ends meet. And, if we think about it, our comfort zone is where we do most of our work. In fact it’s probably where we do our best work as it’s where we do the jobs we like, working for customers we feel comfortable with.
I’ve been planning this blog for a while, but I particularly thought about it this week, when I was having a particularly frustrating experience with the kind of high-paying direct customer we’re all told (usually by the same gurus who are telling us to get out of our comfort zones) that we should be chasing. And I suddenly caught a glimpse of what my working life would be like if I put my rates up high enough to price myself out of the reach of my loyal agency customers, as those gurus would have me do. It wasn’t a pretty picture. There I was, sitting around waiting in vain for potentially lucrative jobs to be confirmed, out of my mind with worry. And I resolved that, although I would remain open to the possibility of securing more direct clients, dumping agency work wasn’t a road I would be going down. My comfort zone was too important to my mental health and too important for my livelihood.
Like most people, I suppose, my experiences of getting out of my comfort zone are mixed. To take two opposing translation-related examples, easily my worst ever experience came when I began to try interpreting. It wasn’t something I’d ever intended to get involved in, but I was offered a few chances to do it and I thought I ought to take them, even though the idea of actually doing it gave me a few sleepless nights. I did one or two jobs and they seemed to go reasonably well, but then came the disaster. I’d been asked by an agency owner I was quite friendly with to go and do a job on the island of Mallorca. It would be easy, he said. An Irish representative of the EU was coming to find out about the progress of some European-funded projects. He spoke a bit of Spanish and all I needed to do was sit next to him and translate anything he didn’t understand into his ear. It didn’t sound like too much of a problem and, as it turned out, it wasn’t.
But then came the bit they hadn’t told me about. The official was going to make a speech in English, and I had to translate it into Spanish for a hall full of assembled dignitaries. I was horrified. I wasn’t confident interpreting “in reverse” at the best of times and the idea of doing it for a crowd of important people terrified me. I was awful, struggling to translate the simplest of ideas and drying up on more than one occasion. It was my most embarrassing, humiliating professional experience and one of the worst of my entire life. And adding to my guilt at having failed so badly was the fact that, after doing the job on the Friday, my wife and I were due to be staying the weekend with my customer, who was understandably unhappy at my pathetic performance. The only excuse I could give him, and I think it was a reasonable one, was that I would never have taken the job had I known what it was going to involve.
But I realised that, in interpreting, I never really would be able to be sure what was going to be involved. It was much too far out of my comfort zone, and those sleepless nights I always had before interpreting jobs should have been a clue. It had taken absolute disaster to make me realise that kind of stress wasn’t for me. As my customer, who was good enough to forgive me and is still a client today, put it: “You need to concentrate on what you’re good at, Simon, and what you’re good at is the written word.” And it was true. I’m happy in my office with my computer. I don’t need anything else. So I’ve never taken another interpreting job from that day to this and have no intention ever to do so again.
I was never keen on speaking in public and that dreadful experience made me even more reticent. But earlier this year I did manage to go beyond that particular comfort zone boundary. It happened when I went along to a monthly entrepreneurs networking evening in Barcelona. I went along one month and realised that chatting with a couple of lawyers, an IT man and an engineer was all very well, but if I really wanted to make those events work for me I needed to give one of the short promotional talks that people attending were encouraged to give to punctuate the social chit-chat. That first evening I felt unprepared and I decided not to go ahead, but a month later I was ready. I gave my name to the organiser, and, when I was called, I got up and gave my talk (loosely based on copy written for this website), almost without nerves and to a great reception. Several people told me it was the best one of the evening. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s brought me a single new customer and I soon stopped bothering with the networking evenings, but, on a personal level at least, it was a great success.
So what conclusions can be drawn from such different experiences? Firstly, I think that it is a good idea to have a comfort zone with glass walls and a door. Sit in it by all means but look outside, see what’s there and, if it looks worthwhile, venture out. Secondly, if you are going out of the comfort zone, you need a strategy. My talk succeeded because it was part of a focused plan. I wanted to promote myself, I’d chosen this particular way of doing it, I’d worked everything out and I knew exactly what I was going to say. It was a way of getting something I knew I wanted and that alone made it worthwhile. My venture into interpreting, by contrast, was simple opportunism. I was offered jobs and I took them without really thinking whether they fitted into my idea of where my business was going. If I’d thought about it, I’m sure I’d have been horrified to think of myself doing nothing but interpreting. Why on earth was I dabbling in it then? And if I’d really wanted to be an interpreter I could have looked at overcoming my nerves and building my confidence with some training, for example.
So my main message would be, by all means be flexible, move on, explore new possibilities that really interest you , but don’t listen to those voices telling you that your comfort zone – the place where you do what you enjoy – is something you should despise. As long as you don’t use it to close yourself off from the outside world, it may well be the best place to spend most of your time.