There and Back Again

Life Beyond the Comfort Zone

The electronic dial tone hummed laboriously in my ear.

The pretentious wordsmith in my head likened it to the taste of blood — copper with a hint of uncertainty.

I was calling an old friend who was currently waiting for me at the base of Mount Arapiles, a spectacular rock formation poking out of Victoria’s customary grassy plains. More importantly — home to some of the best rock climbing known to man.

I’d been there twice before. It was an incredible place. I tell stories about it all the time — packed full of laughter, adrenaline, perseverance and, above all, nostalgia.

Which is why I was so confused to be making this call. I wasn't coming.

The usual suspects were on the lineup: work was all over the place; the assessment crunch was bigger than expected; transport was too much of a hassle.

I wasn't lying — I was hilariously out of my depth at my day-job, I had an essay due the next day, and public transport into the depths of Victoria was… well, the same as always: “parachute optional, yet recommended”.

But at the end of the day, I could do it. I was just choosing not to.

The dial tone cut out. In it’s place, a voice laden with memories of childhood adventures and far too much enthusiasm.

“Hey dude! What’s the plan?”

Comfort zones are fickle things.

Lifehacker has a fantastic article on the subject — specifically, the benefits of breaking out of it.

In it, Henry (Alan Henry, the author. I'm permanently stuck in essay style this time of year. Hell, call it my comfort zone) references a study done back in 1908 by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson (a study that seemed to show up in almost every article touching on the subject. Must have been pretty tip-top).

Using mice, the pair determined that stimulation- you know what, Henry already phrased it better than I would:

“A state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety — a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called “Optimal Anxiety,””

“Optimal Anxiety”. Looks more like an oxymoron more than a state of mind. How does “Optimal Performance Zone” sound? (I snagged that from Wikipedia). The two are interchangeable, so go with whatever floats your boat.

Yes, I have an overarching point to make here, I’m getting to it.

The comfort zone is, well, comfortable. We’re in control. There is limited stress. It has complimentary bath robes. Maybe even a mini-fridge. It’s the safe house, really.

Of course, to find out what we are truly capable of, we need to step outside of it. Good mice died to bring you that statement. Do not dismiss it lightly.

Bleary eyed yet full of contradictory energy, I gazed longingly at the colossal structure.

I’d done it, somehow.

In a heartbeat, the plan had changed from a loosely constructed apology to a hastily constructed journey plan — nine hours of guerilla warfare spanning all manner of transport mediums.

The essay was significantly harder than I anticipated, but I’d locked in now. A man’s only as good as his word, right?

So I wrote until the clock struck twelve (at which point I simply swore and submitted the damn thing), and began to pack. Which was also harder than expected, actually. I’m not exactly the most organised (“Of course I keep my room tidy, Mum. I’m an adult now, remember?”).

I slept when it struck three, woke when it struck six, accidentally slept a little longer, and sprinted to the train station when it struck seven.

Which left me here, trotting up a dusty track following the last step in my journey plan:

“Wander towards the Pilot Error wall. You’ll find us.”

“Wander towards the Pilot Error wall. You’ll find us.” — Mount Arapiles, Victoria.

I took a photo, which was odd. Context: I’m colourblind.

Sure, that hardly stops me from being able to frame a photo. It does, however, steer me away from activities including colour — mostly because I’m worried about messing something up without noticing.

So when a friend pointed me towards a flashy photography app (VSCO Cam) as I furiously packed my bag (he’s in Denmark, which meant he was awake. Champion), it was a pleasant surprise to find myself lying on my belly taking low angle shots like a wannabe photographer thirteen hours later.

In the process, I discovered a hidden love for over-saturated, high contrast photographs. They may look over the top for those with normal eyes, but for my colour-devoid receptors, it’s a whole new level of pretty.

“Are they blue or purple? “— Mount Arapiles, Victoria.
“Which way?” — Mount Arapiles, Victoria.

I was excited by my new-found hobby, that’s for sure. But it wasn’t the most important thing I did on my jaunt outside the comfort zone. Actually getting back on the wall took that title.

“But you said you’d been there before? Surely climbing is well within your comfort zone?”

Yes, it was, at one point. Funnily enough, it was my first trip out there that changed that.

I had a bad experience halfway up a multi-pitch climb. It was the middle of winter, my hands were so cold I couldn’t make a fist, and the light was fading fast. Luckily, the guys I was climbing with were absolute beasts on the rock— they managed to convince my terrified mind to press on. We finished right as the sun dipped over the horizon.

The next morning I was still reeling from the fear, so I decided to take a rest day. I climbed a little the final day, but nothing worth bragging about. So when I arrived home the following afternoon, I realised I had left my confidence somewhere on the cliff.

Brené Brown discussed fear and the comfort zone in an article by the New York Times.

The more afraid we are, she said, “the more impenetrable our comfort zones buffers become.”

I can vouch for that. I didn’t climb for six months after leaving Arapiles. When I finally did, it was with trembling hands and a whole lot of excuses.

I only did two climbs on this recent trip — hardly worthy of the nine hour journey, but that’s not the point. The point is, I got back on the wall.

I most definitely didn’t find my former courage, but I didn’t back down either. I stood at the top of a piss-easy (yet incredibly exposed) climb and thought:

“Hey, you pushed through it. I guess you can still do this.”

It’s the little victories.

I wanted to sign off with an upbeat and somewhat cliché statement about pushing yourself and succeeding. A conclusive summary of the time I stepped out of my comfort zone, and how it changed my life. An inspiring comment on the remarkable things humans are capable of when they step into the unknown. You know the sort.

I’ll do you one better.

George Mallory, upon being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest:

“Because it’s there.”