Begoña Gómez Urzaiz
You know an expression is here to stay when it’s been used by Carlos Sobera and Pedro Sánchez on the same week. A few months ago, before the second election, the Basque presenter announced his new TV venture, First Dates, pointing at the fact that, with this project he was “stepping out of my [his] comfort zone.” At the same time, the already ousted general secretary of the PSOE, someone as keen on adopting lexical trends as who buys a pair of New Balance trainers to wear on Sundays -I’m sure ten years ago he must have started saying “it’s in our DNA”- asked Pablo Iglesias, please and for Gramsci’s sake, to “step out of your comfort zone” and accepted to form a three-way government with Ciudadanos –little did he suspect how quickly he would be expelled from his comfort zone, if we can call the socialist direction that way–. None of them has been an early adopter of this lexical fad. The first one to take it to the headlines, outside of the coaching sections that take care of our well-being in Sunday supplements, was Jose Mourinho, who already in 2013 put more pressure on his personal war against Iker Casillas saying in a sweetly sick way that what he was trying to do was making the Real Madrid goalkeepers step out of their comfort zone.
The expression seems to have settled, and has found its place not only in the media’s vocabulary, but also in everyday life. Put it to the test: ask your relatives and friends for advice on something such as “I don’t know whether I should accept this new job that implies a significant change in my life” or “my partner wants us to live together, but I’m not sure,” and all you’ll hear will be: “go on, step out of your comfort zone!”
Although there are several theories about its origin, it seems that the idea comes from the range of temperatures in which human beings feel comfortable, between 20 and 24 degrees. In 1991, a business managing book entitled Danger in the Comfort Zone was published, and on it, its author, Judith M. Bardwick, took the expression to the self-help field and defined the “comfort zone” as the “state of behaviour in which a person operates at a neutral anxiety level,” quoting a famous experiment with mice that proved that animals perform better under a certain level of stress, but not too much better, something known as “optimal anxiety”, an oxymoron that could well be the title of a Fangoria single. Still, we owe its current omnipresence to another researcher, sociologist Brené Brown, from the University of Houston, who in her book The Gifts of Imperfection talked about the comfort zone as that place in life in which “uncertainty, scarcity and vulnerability are minimal, that is to say, where we think there’s enough space for love, food, time or contemplation.”
Love. Food. Time. Contemplation. Sounds like a great plan. It looks a lot like what the workers involved in working class struggles fought for, like getting the weekend off, let’s say, like the aspirations of classic social democracy. That’s why it’s called comfort, for heaven’s sake, a word that in Spanish has this cosy seventies aftertaste that makes you think of blankets, orthopaedic insoles and a well-conditioned room. To me, personally, it reminds me of Comercial Confort, the electrical appliances shop in my city, Tarragona, where one could find anything, from a toaster to a telly. At the beginning of the crisis it became part of the Miró chain and finally ended up closing its doors, a collateral victim of the property crisis.
“Step out of your comfort zone” is the new “Be your own boss”, the latest “get out there and take the challenge,” #ilovemyjob’s cousin, the softened and conveniently updated version of “if you don’t make it, you’re not trying hard enough.” It’s, in short, the ultimate neoliberal motto, and the answer to the problem of the first world’s last missing link. No one who is forced to immigrate ever thinks: “well, it’s not so bad after all, this way I’ll step out of my comfort zone.”
In a working context, it makes sense that the expression and the concept in itself have made it, because they are linked to the idea that we don’t go to work to earn our wages and/or contribute to the common welfare, but to fulfil ourselves, and not only in a mere hedonistic way, but thanks to a certain kind of modern self-discipline. Today, it’s OK to accept a non- or under-paid job because it will make you learn. The concept implies an Olympic disdain for concepts such as professionalism and specialization. It would be quite difficult for a craftsman who spends decades perfecting his trade or a researcher who for years gets closer and closer to his final goal to step out of their comfort zone (without failing). Should they get sick of what they do and decide they want to step out of their comfort zone because, I don’t know, they hear someone on the radio say that they’re getting far too comfy in their atelier or lab, that they lo longer feel as fulfilled as before, three equally catastrophic things would take place: the vast amount of hours devoted to their task would be lost; their final goal would be never reached (or it would take longer to be reached), and, besides, driven by society to do something new, exciting and risky, they would probably end up wasting their talent doing something for which they’re less gifted.
Should you take this to an emotional or family level, the thing becomes even trickier, but for all of those thinking, nevertheless, about stepping out of their comfort zone, we have two words: Anna Karenina.