The fireplace casts a warm glow over the living room. My Tablet is in my lap, and a gripping historical fiction novel is open on my Kindle. A steaming cup of Pickwick Rooibos Mango & Peach tea is at my side. Worship music plays in the background, and the atmosphere is relaxing. Even as darkness falls in the evening, I don’t need to rise from my recliner to turn on a lamp because my Tablet casts enough light for me to read my book. I am comfortable, content, relaxed…
I often hear someone talk about their “comfort zone,” and I am immediately transported to a scene like this in my mind— a time and place when everything is easy and there are no challenges. There are no surprises, and I don’t have to worry about anything changing. But even as I sit by the fire and read, negative factors can creep into this comfortable state and create discontent. My music might buffer and stop because the Wi-Fi signal is weak. My Tablet battery might go dead and I need to charge it before I can continue reading. I might spill my tea all over myself. I might even spill my tea on my Tablet which would inevitably result in a horrible situation. A water-damaged electronic device never functions very well.
Within a time of comfort there is always something that causes discomfort. Nothing is ever perfect, and as a result, I have come to realize that for me, there probably is no such thing as a comfort zone. I know this might seem bold to admit, but I truly believe it is true for me. A comfort zone seems to imply a time and place that is devoid of negative reactions. There is nothing that stretches a person’s abilities or tries someone’s patience. It’s comfortable and predicable with little to no threat on the horizon. Simply put, its safety from anything outside “the zone.”
Now, I like it when things are easy and there isn’t any drama on the horizon, but I’ve come to realize that when my surroundings seem too peaceful, I almost seek out a bit of adversity. I have always liked a challenge, and when there is very little action around me, I crave a change. I need something to work for and a task to complete. I feel motivated when I have to solve a problem or polish a musical arrangement. Sometimes my tasks create stress and worry, which is not very enjoyable, but in the end, I come out stronger.
It’s a little like my development as a musician. When I first started performing concerts with my family, I would have a few solos here and there. I would sing along with a back-up track because I didn’t know how to accompany myself on the piano. But as I grew older, I felt limited by the number of back-up tracks that were available. Sometimes, I wanted to perform a song, but no track existed for it. In those times, I wanted to buy the sheet music and learn how to play it in the worst way. But quite often, the arrangement was just too difficult to replicate by ear.
That’s when I gradually started to muddle through beginner piano. Week by week, month by month, year by year… I worked my way up to playing hymns and praise songs— simple arrangements that I could play without needing written music. Then little by little, I began to write songs and developing my own style. For the first time in my life, I actually felt more comfortable singing from behind the piano. In the rare times when I sang with a back-up track, I felt very much out of my element. You might even say that I was outside of my comfort zone.
But then the big jump took place. I was volunteering at the church while I pursued my Masters degree when Pastor Tim first suggested that I try leading worship.
“You mean I would play and sing at the piano and the congregation would actually sing along with me?” I exclaimed. “I’m not sure I know how to make that happen. I mean, I’ve given concerts and performed the songs I’ve written, but no one has ever sung along with me.”
“You can do it,” he said. “I have confidence in you.”
And it was there that I got my start. Four-and-a-half years later, I would say I am fairly comfortable leading worship. In fact, it is now a rarity for me to present concerts or perform on my own. It isn’t that I have stepped out of my comfort zone; it is more like my comfort zone has shifted.
I came to recognize this recently when I was watching a reality show based on competing acapella singing groups. Each group had hired a coach— a director of sorts— and they were hoping to increase their chances of winning in the finals. Each coach stepped in and did the very thing the groups had asked them to do: move them forward and challenge them with songs and routines that they may not have considered without the coaches’ guidance. As a result, the groups were stretched beyond their comfort level. Singers who had always been given solos were suddenly being asked to audition for the right to sing lead. Beat-boxers were given further direction on keeping the tempo in place and shown new techniques. Choreography became more than just simple dance steps to the beat of a song; instead, full-fledged skits or scenes were acted out to enhance a song emotionally.
At first the singers protested the changes. They had been accustomed to running things on their own, and it was comfortable. Now, suddenly, the coaches were making changes, and it was a huge shift. But little by little, the changes began to take root, and there was a new normal in place. Routines began to be polished, and soloists found they were more confident singing the lead. Sometimes, the comfort factor was so enhanced that singers would zone out for awhile, almost on autopilot because they knew the arrangement so well. They had entered a new zone in their performance.
But one night, everything came down to the wire. The last group to compete sat through an entire night of performances. Everyone had sounded so good, that intimidation was taking root. For the first time in the competition cycle, the coach noticed that the singers were shutting down. They were showing fear and doubt, and that didn’t bode well for a good performance.
“I can tell when a group is in the zone,” he said just before the group went onstage. “And you are not in the zone. Get in the zone now; don’t think about anything else. You can do this.”
And just like that, the group turned in their best performance of the year. There may have been some challenges along the way, some unexpected methods, and the intimidation of other talented musicians, but when it was all said and done, they had expanded their comfort zone. It was only through this experience that they could perform like they did. They took everything they had worked through and used it to motivate success.
So for me, there is no jumping outside of the comfort zone to tackle something new; it’s all about taking what you have and expanding on it— increasing the boundaries of the comfort zone, so to speak. In “the zone,” you can accomplish almost anything if you have the means to do so.