The other day I read an article recommending different ways to “get out of my comfort zone.” Most of its advice consisted in gratuitous self-torture, such as setting up an alarm for 10 (!) minutes earlier than usual for no good reason other than making you uncomfortable.
The proliferation of the ‘get out of comfort zone’ type of advice in Medium articles, social media posts and even shopping bags has to do, I believe, with an attempt to prevent us from succumbing to inertia. It hopes we can achieve what we want by conquering our innate fear of being uncomfortable, beating what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance” in The War of Art: “Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”
Whatever is closer to your “soul’s desire to evolve” finds the least inner resistance against it.
But I believe the exact opposite to be true. Whatever is closer to your “soul’s desire to evolve” finds the least inner resistance against it. You can accomplish a lot more with joy than with fear. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to explain a state of mind that makes you forget about everything other than the activity at hand. Happiness is not about finding zen, success, or even love, according to him. It’s about achieving flow as frequently as possible.
Csikszentmihalyi’s flow shares some common ideals with Laozi’s Ancient Chinese philosophical principle: wu wei. Wu wei, as a concept, goes much deeper than flow and is hard to translate, but you’ve probably heard it being called “not doing” or “non action.” It doesn’t mean lethargy or passiveness. It’s about finding the natural force that flows out when your mind is clear, when you’re not getting in your own way by overthinking or overdoing things.
Alan Watts in What is Tao explains wu wei with a nice example of how we are conditioned to get in our way since childhood. When children have to pay attention in school, their minds will often go wandering. If teachers realize this they often get angry and order them to “Pay attention!” Kids will then try so hard to focus on the lecture that they’ll stop listening to what the teacher is saying. They will focus on remaining focused, not on the actual content being taught.
There’s a deep wisdom in letting your inner self, what’s hidden behind your ego, flow without interference. It doesn’t mean lack of effort or sitting back and waiting for something to happen. It’s finding your true path and then moving with full energy and enthusiasm through it.
Successful entrepreneurs often think of their early days as founders as their happiest, even though those are on the surface the roughest days of the business. It takes an incredible amount of work to take a company off the ground, usually for little or no pay. But if it’s a part of who you really are, if it’s an idea that needs to get out to the world, you’ll do it with joy and focus. When you lose yourself in your work so profoundly that you forget to even go to the bathroom, you’re navigating deep inside your comfort zone, not outside of it.
Many of the great innovators and successful people we know accomplished most of their achievements inside their comfort zones. Einstein would sit on a bench by the lake for hours daydreaming about the universe. Steve Wozniak, the computer genius behind the early days of Apple, repeatedly turned down high positions at Apple because he loved to be an engineer. Elon Musk manages half a dozen companies at the same time — and he’s likely to lose all his money doing it — but we don’t hear him complain about the work.
For years I was convinced of the ‘get out of your comfort zone’ idea. I believed that the way to success, whatever that means, was paved with toughness and uncomfortableness. It took writing my first book to begin to understand what wu wei truly represents.
Time sitting in front of the computer flies by when I’m writing. Though this isn’t a new sensation, I can at last put a finger on what’s so enjoyable about sitting down to write. Even the most challenging parts of it.
But it wasn’t until after I interviewed successful ecommerce entrepreneurs for the book that I found the most compelling inspiration for staying in my comfort zone. My goal was to learn what successful online store owners did differently from the rest. I learned a lot about how top performers manage successful online businesses, which is the main content of the book, but I also learned something even more profound.
I asked them if there was a time in their journey that felt like they wouldn’t make it; or a period where the difficulties were so immeasurable that it was no longer worth the effort. I was looking for a defining moment where they needed extra will power to go through the bad times. The answer was almost always some variation of (if not the actual words) “Not really.”
The fastest growing stores were the ones that reported the smoothest trajectories, with each step flowing naturally to the next.
While researching I found that the majority of the successful online stores in our sample have the most important pieces of their businesses in place and working well very early in their company’s lifetime. Almost all of the successful entrepreneurs surveyed (89%) said it took less than a year to achieve the mark of $100k revenue. More than half (63%) got there in under six months. The fastest growing stores were the ones that reported the smoothest trajectories, with each step flowing naturally to the next.
Take Josh Willard, whose childhood favorite pastime, collecting frogs in the nearby swamp, gradually turned into Josh’s Frogs, a large ecommerce business that sells exotic pets and supplies online. This is how Josh described the moment he decided to turn his then side business into a full-time job: “At one point I thought, ‘Hey, I’m gonna make a go at this.’ I had seen some significant growth in what I was doing, so it wasn’t so much of a turning point, but a point of increase, you know? A decision that was already made for me when I arrived at it.”
Travis Pittman, an incurable traveler that met his future wife in one of his travels, brought his company to Austria so he could be with her, and today runs a multi-million dollar marketplace for multi-day tours. Rory Westbrook was only 19 years old when he combined his passion for vintage clothing and knowledge of social media to start a fast-growing online vintage fashion shop. I had dozens of interviews with successful online store owners and very rarely they reported stories of overcoming struggle or pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones.
It’s common for entrepreneurs, however, to hear about epic tales of perseverance. The famous phrase “Our overnight success took 1,000 days” from Airbnb’s Brian Chesky became a mantra for “hard work conquers all.” But I think that’s only half the story. A story telling people that no matter how bad their idea is, or how disconnected their business is from their true values, anything can be accomplished by getting out of their comfort zones and working harder.
The very expression “hard work” often implies that the only type of success possible has to happen after years of misery and heartache. Yes, writing a book, founding a company or starting a new career takes a lot of work, but it’s not necessarily hard if it’s flowing out of you. It’s enjoyable.
The difficult part is getting to wu wei, flow, your comfort zone, or however you want to call it. Maybe it does take several trips outside of it to realize what floats your creative boat. You may need to peel off many layers of ego and conditioning to be able to find your true calling. And maybe getting out of the comfort zone and battling Resistance every day works for some people, but I’d much better live in a state of flow than a state of war.
About the author: Ramon Bez is a growth marketer who has worked for Compass (former Startup Genome) for two years. He has combined data from both their researches into his upcoming book, Ecommerce Genome, due to launch in 2019.