The Comfort Zone Is Where Work Gets Done

In the very first post on this blog, I argued that “you must leave your comfort zone to find happiness.” While I still believe this is somewhat true, eight years later, I have a much more relative view of this idea.

Back then, it was the only advice 23-year-old me could give — probably because it’s advice for 20-somethings. When you’re young and don’t know what you want out of life, venturing out into the world and trying many things is a great idea. In fact, it’s your only good option. If you stick with the first thing that falls into your lap, be it a job at a car dealership, a career as a lawyer, or a business degree, chances are, you’ll live the dreams of those who set you on that path rather than your own.

So yes, while it is uncomfortable to reject what our families and friends want for us only to look as if we have no plan as we explore the unknown — because we do have no plan — it is necessary if we want to find authentic happiness in our work.

I spoke to a 22-year-old this week. She is bright, hardworking, and has all the opportunities in this world — but she is also still searching. “Have faith that everything will come together.” That was the only advice I could give. She was already exploring, but since nothing had clicked yet — and perhaps at 22, nothing needs to click yet — what good would it do for me to yell, “Just pick something already!” at her? She probably has enough people in her life doing that already.

What I didn’t know back when I started writing was that, when things eventually do come together — and they will — you must go back home. Back to the comfort zone. Because the comfort zone is where work gets done.

A routine. A quiet home. A predictable week, month, and year. That’s what we need when we want to dedicate ourselves to output rather than throughput. How are you going to keep writing novels until you succeed if, every month, you’re busy chasing some new business idea, some new writing platform to try? You can’t. You’ll lose yourself in all these distractions, and once you know writing novels must be your mission, that’s all they’ll ever be. Distractions.

While I think it’s great that we can now work from anywhere, I also finally realize why being a digital nomad is mainly the dream of 20-somethings: They don’t really want to work. They want to travel. Meet people. And perhaps, along the way, sample a few careers. When you’re in your 20s, that’s probably exactly what you should do! I wish we wouldn’t try so hard to slap this fake veneer of productivity on top of it. A nomad’s main task is traveling, and even with all the apps and tools we have nowadays, organizing travel can still easily balloon into a full-time job. How could they build a software company along the way? The truth is most people can’t, and that’s perfectly okay.

When I slowly grew roots as a writer, no less than three years into the job, mind you, I deliberately chose to become a digital settler. I set up my base in Munich, a city which I loved full of people I loved, and I’m happy to say I haven’t moved apartments in over four years. I haven’t traveled all that much since, but I’ve been rather productive, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The necessity of a comfort zone only becomes clearer when you add age, family, and kids. If some 25-year-old told my friend Mike to “Do one thing every day that scares you!!” he’d laugh him out of the room. Mike has two little kids and lives by the ocean. That’s probably enough to worry about on any given day. And whenever he’s not making sure his boys don’t drown, cry, or start a fight, he’s busy putting food on the table and paying his rent, trying to do it all in a way that is true to himself. Is that uncomfortable enough yet?

Choosing a career path is a responsibility. It hurts much more to fail at something you’re passionate about than to get mediocre results while half-trying a whole bunch of things you don’t care all that much about. The latter is necessary to find the former, but once you do, it’s time to grow up.

Choosing your friends, family, and loved ones on top of your work — and sometimes instead of it — is another responsibility 20-somethings must rarely fully come to terms with yet. But that, too, is important.

So, by all means: Go out there and try as many things as you need to try to find something you want to sink your teeth into. Say goodbye to the comfort zone. Once your heart feels full and the pull of a specific project, passion, or person feels too strong to ignore, however, please come right back. In the long run, we need you firmly in your saddle. We need you warm, well-fed, and comfortable, so you may share with us your greatest contributions.

Leave your comfort zone to find happiness, but then return to it to spread the joy you brought back.