What Is It That Makes Me Step out of My Comfort Zone

(And why I always come back after I do)

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

When my 14-year-old self used to attend piano classes, I wanted to play Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu. “What an ambitious goal”, I thought to myself, believing that every other kid my age sucked as much as I did.

For those of you, not piano connoisseurs, that piece is hard. I asked my teacher, “What grade do I have to be to play Fantaisie Impromptu? His response was kind, a bit ironic but kind — it made me feel like a moron anyway.

“Well, when Chopin composed it, he wasn’t thinking ‘I’m going to write a piece for Grade 5'”

My dumb brain had thought that learning was like a roller coaster: to get to the coolest one you have to be a certain height first. Something out of your jurisdiction, managed by time and genes.

Now, more than a decade later, Youtube kindly taught me that for everything that you want to do competently, there’s already a 7-year-old Chinese girl that is already doing it. It’s a cliché because it’s true.

Lesson learned: If I want to be able to play the damn piece, I must practice. So I began practicing.

And boy did I failed.

There were certain requirements that my hands and my brain just did not meet

The thing is, I didn’t have the practice routine of that Chinese girl, which was probably more intense than anything that I had done in my life up until now. She was probably epigenetically engineered to excel.

I didn’t. I was sending my fingers the signal to move fast and accurately. The result was, well. Imagine a hummingbird trying to go by its day with the metabolism of a sleepy sloth.

Trying to get me to play this piece did not feel like being a fish out of water. It felt like being a fish that was commanded with presiding a symposium about the metabolism of sloths and its evolutionary advantages. In Russian.

Piano virtuosos were way too far away from my comfort zone — but I didn’t care much for it and just forgot the whole thing

Until recently, which for some reason, this idea of playing competently clashed with the idea of “being out of the comfort zone”. A slogan that is so advertised these days.

Go out and beyond, where prosperity and growth hide. Don’t stay in the back alley of crushed dreams and goal stagnation that is your comfort zone.

“Make yourself comfortable in the discomfort”.

But is that it, though? Is it just finding the resilience within yourself to endure discomfort and… stay there? Because that’s not at all what piano virtuosos do.

They do it backwards: they make comfortable what it previously wasn’t

It’s a bit like a dance. No, it’s exactly like dancing. Effortlessly on the beat, no thinking, no conscious management over the body. Each part falls in its place. You don’t make decisions, you flow.

It’s tacit, it’s automatic, it’s pleasurable. It’s comfortable.

Fantaisie Impromptu was very much inside the comfort zone of that 7-year-old Chinese girl, and every human being that has mastered the piece. I offer myself a useless consolation, “Her feet can’t even make it to the floor”.

Well, that video was from 2014. Her feet probably reach the floor now, so I’m officially behind in every sense.

But, at least, that gives us a framework for naturally stepping out of the comfort zone

Meaning, not just stepping out of it for the sake of stepping out, which is what a lot of us do sometimes. We go out, all-in, and it’s a bit overwhelming. It all feels too early, too fast, too furious.

So we figure that we’re not made for discomfort. Our sloth metabolisms can only handle slow chewing and lying down. And that has undeniable evolutionary advantages.

But so do challenges. We, humans, evolved for those too. It’s just that we can’t handle them like we were the kings of the savannah.

We were more of a “seek-and-hide” species

Step out to the unknown wild, quickly grab fruits and nuts, catch a gazelle if we can, and then go back to our caves. We were cavemen.

After we took manageable risks, we came back to the security of the cave. Of the comfort zone.

Getting rid of challenges is not satisfactory, and you know it, as you may surely have experienced the sensation of boredom, or meaninglessness. We need a challenge we can control just enough to feel engaged, but stimulate growth at the same time.

And we also need a cave to go back to when night falls.

So that’s how you step out of the comfort zone

Go out, gather what you can, take it back to your lair. Practice a bit, suck for a bit, go take a rest. When you come back, it’s going to be easier. That way you can make it from “impossible to play” to “graciously flowing over the keys”.

I had a decade to finally master Fantaisie Impromptu. Did I make it?

No. I wish I had learned it so I could embed a video here and drive my point home. But I don’t have Chinese parents who place all their hopes on me, so I got relaxed, and later writing picked my interest with greater force.

I quickly learned the first 15 seconds of the piece though. A useless consolation. “I could totally do it if I wanted”.




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Loudt Darrow

Loudt Darrow

Informed. Opinionated. I might be wrong but never boring.