What exactly is a comfort zone, and how do we make the transition out of one? Looking back at the different comfort zones we’ve inhabited throughout our lives might invoke a sweet sense of nostalgia for our former selves, like a hermit crab looking back at all of the smaller shells she once occupied.
Through the lens of time, it becomes easier to categorize our past comfort zones, but in the here and now, it can be harder to define their borders clearly. That’s because most of the time, a comfort zone isn’t a tangible thing— it’s simply where we are, who we are, and what we do, all wrapped up in one fluid, meandering context. Its edges become more difficult to find.
Whether or not we leave our comfort zones intentionally, they change on their own as years pass. As creatives, we make small, necessary adjustments to our techniques, our processes, and our habits that result in incremental adjustments to our comfort zones over time. Occasionally, we might stumble into an unexpected mentor, or find a point of inspiration so compelling that we reach to replicate it, and occurrences like those can stretch us even more.
In extreme instances, a profound signal can shake us out of our comfort zones entirely, and do so overnight. My colleague Clint is a great example of this. At one point in his life, he was all-in as a musician. Music was his first love, his identity, something he was highly skilled in and passionate about, and he was comfortable there. Then, a fleeting decision to gain three quick credit hours led him to his first graphic design course. Within the first 30 minutes of the first class, he knew that he was destined to be a graphic designer. He had no idea how to become one at the time. Still, this realization was powerful enough to clarify all of the things that he’d been missing in his formerly comfortable life as a musician, and he quickly started to take the necessary steps to change.
In the aftermath of a cataclysmic realization like Clint’s, it’s easy to see how a person can design their way out of a comfort zone and into new territory. Clint got smart about his circumstances, envisioned a path forward, shifted his core focus, and adjusted inroads to maximize opportunity and align factors. Moreover, he implemented this with a sense of urgency, which matched the intensity and clarity of the signal he received.
However, a blaring signal to shift our life’s purpose isn’t the only catalyst that can lead to designing our way out of our comfort zone. In less extreme instances, the process still starts with a signal, albeit a quieter one— something novel that clicks into place. It could be a new idea or experience that you can’t stop thinking about, or meeting a new person who expands your horizons. Our positive reactions to these signals can be a powerful indicator of what deficits exist in our current zones. If we practice listening to these quieter signals, we can become more sensitive to them and begin to harness them in a more meaningful way.
We can start by questioning what latent deficits or desires the signals might be revealing to us. Then we can engage in some brainstorming and creative research to unearth exciting potential futures that we hadn’t considered before. Once we’ve envisioned something we’re excited about, the act of designing for that future is itself a pursuit where our creativity becomes an essential tool. After all, we have a unique capacity to seek new sources of inspiration and material, or set new definitions for what we consider “satisfactory.” We can also seek out a new mentor or community to extend our outlook and sphere of opportunity. Along the way, where or how we spend our free time will likely shift to accommodate these pursuits.
Whether all at once or little by little, when we apply the design process to reinventing different parts of our life, we may look up and realize we’ve left our old comfort zone entirely and created a new one. In doing so, we might prove that design is an act that goes far beyond the corporate sphere— rather, it is something we can use to enrich and evolve our very existence.
Clint and Kelsy are colleagues at SYPartners, a consultancy where designers and strategists work closely with leaders to guide their organizations through times of transformation. Clint is a typography addict, aspiring furniture maker, and BBQ enthusiast who has helped teach design at ArtCenter College of Design in LA. Kelsy is a designer turned strategist, synth musician, and Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast who has helped to teach brand strategy at the School of Visual Arts in NYC.