How Leaving My Comfort Zone Changed My Outlook On Life

This piece was originally published in ThoughtCatalog on January 9, 2017.

I was never much of a “doer.”

As a child, I rejected my parents’ encouragement to get involved in “activities”—things like French Club or our church’s youth volunteer program.

My favorite thing to do as a teenager was get into a car with my friends and drive around our small town, maybe stopping at a party or the beach (to meet up with more friends driving around in their own cars). But ask me to go to the movies, see a concert, or participate in any other pre-scheduled, planned event, and my answer would probably be no.

This trend of not really wanting to “do things” continued as an adult. I belonged to a gym, but I could never quite get myself to sign up for group classes, preferring to drop-in and hop on a treadmill on my own schedule. I worked in the political science department at college, but was reluctant to join any of the clubs or organizations my school offered, even ones that worked towards issues I really cared about, like gender equality.

In fact, the question “what are your hobbies?” that I’d receive at job interviews or from a new acquaintance always filled me with anxiety—does going to brunch with friends on weekends count?

Sometimes my antipathy for doing activities caused rifts in my relationships. While I was perfectly content with doing little to nothing after work save for ordering dinner and watching Netflix, I’ve dated more than one man who resisted against my penchant for vegging out. I would be asked to go to Broadway shows, listen to live music at a local bar, and take cooking classes. While I mostly refused these invitations, the few I accepted I attended begrudgingly, and often dreaded the very act of participating.

I’m not quite sure what caused my rejecting of doing. I wouldn’t consider myself a boring person, and in fact I have done things—big things—in my life, like completing a doctorate in political science and building a successful career in the consulting industry. At times I rationalized my need to do little more than watch Law & Order SVU marathons as a consequence of the amount of time and energy I put into my job—I work in the public opinion research and consulting industry, and most of my days are spent creating work for my clients—perhaps this act of producing all day meant that all I could do was consume in my downtime, whether that meant watching TV, reading, eating, or drinking (or sometimes all four).

And even though very few people would guess this about me because of the confidence I project to others, I’m somewhat of an introvert. I don’t get energized from being around large groups of people and need to step away and be alone after a few hours of socialization. Many of the “doing” activities outside of work require a level of extroversion that I save for events with friends and meetings with clients.

For a long time, I felt like something might be lacking in my life. On paper, everything was great—I had an amazing career and was living in one of the best cities in the world—and fairly comfortably at that (something very hard to do in New York City as the middle class slowly disintegrates). I had good friends, a family close by, a cat, and as of October 2015, a husband. But producing all day long just to go home and consume for a few hours before bed didn’t always feel great. Sometimes it got pretty boring. And I increasingly felt a need to really do something and force myself out of routine and complacency.

So—my husband and I did the whole clichéd “quit your job and travel the world” thing. It makes me cringe a little to write that, precisely because it’s so hackneyed. It’s also something that might be more acceptable to do when you’re fresh out of college, not a decade out, like me. But I think we both felt a strong need to do something out of the norm and shed the predictability of our lives. Traveling wasn’t the only answer to our problem, but it sure was a fun one to entertain.

We left New York on a journey set to last six months. The beginning was hard. When you decide to shake things up like we did, you don’t always anticipate how the transition to that sort of lifestyle might be just that—shaky. I was so used to my routine and especially the producing part of it, that walking around cities and visiting sites was a complete 180—total consumption. I found myself trying to “schedule” time to write blogs, or to keep up with my professional networks, anything to feel like I’ve accomplished something. Without work, I was in some ways lost.

But this feeling didn’t last long, because I actually started doing things, in addition to consuming. And the things I did were productive in that they helped me work toward a better version of myself. I’ve never gone camping in my life—even as a child, I’d pitch a tent with my siblings in our backyard and last an hour in a sleeping bag before running back inside to the comfort of my own bed and room. So when I camped in an Omani desert in a straw hut with sand as the ground and an outhouse (read: a hole in the ground) for a bathroom, it’s safe to say I was lightyears outside of my comfort zone. But sitting under the stars that night sipping tea with other foreigners and talking about everything from the joys of traveling to what it’s like to have kids, I felt a sense of accomplishment—not only could I survive, but I could thrive and really enjoying doing something totally new for me.

In Egypt, we visited to slums of a river town not far from Luxor. I thought I had seen the “third world” on trips to Central and South America, but nothing I’d seen was even close to the devastating poverty I saw on my walk through this town. I had to step over mounds of mosquito-infested trash that included feces along a street adorned with makeshift huts that consisted of slabs of wood and a piece of cloth for the roof. But what surprised me most was how happy and satisfied the villagers seemed. We walked through a market and watched some fishermen fry up the catch of the day while they hammed it up for the photos we took of their labors. The children loved to run up to us and scream the only English word they know—“Hello!” while they wave and jump up and down, trying to get our attention. And they just kept smiling—everyone in that town had a smile on their face, laughing with their families and friends as they went about their day amid conditions most of us in the Western world could scarcely imagine.

And the best part of visiting these towns was talking with the locals, who were more than eager to practice their English and share their thoughts on life in their country. I also learned that most people in this world are fundamentally decent humans who will really try to help you if they can. I was amazed by how many locals would stop to ask if we needed directions or try really hard to communicate with us even if they didn’t know English well. I hate to say it, but I personally wouldn’t have gone out of my way to help strangers prior to this trip. I shudder to admit that I actually say no when tourists in NYC ask me to take their photo when I’m rushing to get to my next work meeting. The philosophy of individualism that dominates in America—the idea that we all need to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and make our own way in the world without help—is not felt as strongly, if at all, in other countries. I was so humbled by the generosity so many showed us, and it inspired me to give back in my own life by adopting a more empathetic stance toward others.

My experiences on this trip taught me that doing things in life that have nothing to do with how you make money can teach you a lot—about yourself, about the world, about humanity. I do feel changed from participating in different cultures and experiences that I never would have sought out had I not taken this trip. Many of my friends and family who have followed my journey on social media have made comments like “Who are you?” when they’ve seen pictures of me riding camels in the desert or slathered in mud at the Dead Sea. My uncle even said to me that my pictures on Facebook are “not of the Brittany I know.” But far from betraying who I am as a person, I am expanding my set of experiences and growing because of it. In fact, those comments made me feel embarrassed—had I really limited myself that much by not doing things in the past?

But luckily, the journey isn’t over yet—my husband and I are leaving for a tour of Eastern Africa in just a couple of days. He wants us to trek through the wilderness and explore the parts of Africa that are hard to get to for most travelers. As you can probably tell about me by now, that’s also pretty far from my comfort zone. But you know what? I think I’m going to do it.

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