Business Musings: Comfort Zones

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For the past two years, I have lived outside my comfort zone. Some of that is because of our sudden move to Las Vegas. Not only am I in a new community, a new state, and a new region, I’m also living farther south than I ever have in my life. The sun behaves differently down here. Winter behaves differently down here. Yes, the amount of sunlight is limited and yes, the temperatures are cooler, but they’re not cold like they were when I lived in Wisconsin. And the days are so bright that I’m astonished by it.

For example, the other day, I was walking to my car after a weekly meeting. I had found a new parking spot that I decided I was going to use every week. As I walked, I had one of those random thoughts: When winter comes and it gets dark and rainy, this might not be the best location.

When I realized what I’d been thinking, I laughed out loud. It is winter, and the days are getting longer, but sunset is still early, just a little after five on that day. This was as dark as it would get.

I’m getting better about the relocation dislocation, but every now and then the stark differences between the north and the south—in weather and sunlight alone—still startle me.

When we go through life, we tune out certain things, because otherwise we would suffer from constant sensory overload. Moving from one region of the country to another forces us to examine all the differences…until we get used to where we live, and tune out all that’s not necessary. (This is a hard technique to teach writers: how do you write setting from the point of view of someone who sees the same thing every day? You write about what’s different, as well as describe what they’re actually doing. If you’re not careful, you’ll overdescribe—or underdescribe. {and if you’re wondering, overdescribing is better.})

I’m just getting to the point where I tune out normal things about Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Desert Southwest. But it still trips me up.

I am literally out of my comfort zone—and happily so. (When I moved from Wisconsin to Oregon, I left my comfort zone as well, and as time went on, I realized I didn’t like it. But I was there, and Oregon was a compromise for me and Dean and eventually the darkness and the rain and the storms became normal. I seriously, happily, and deeply do not miss any part of that state…except the proximity of my friends.)

I’m outside my comfort zone on a variety of other things as well. I’m pushing my schedule, something I haven’t done in years, because I had been afraid I would physically collapse if I did. Now I’m working hard each day, sometimes as much as 16 to 18 hours per day during a workshop.

I make sure I sleep 8 hours and I wake up refreshed, not exhausted from all the work. That’s new.

I’m trying to mentally change my habits, to understand that I can do these things. But they’re as strange to me as the bright sunlight in the middle of winter.

I’m also getting up earlier than I ever have before. Some of that is sunlight streaming into my condo (which I will not change, thank you helpful Facebook friends), but some of it is that when I’m rested, I’m unable to sleep more. That’s nifty.

I’m also getting up really early to run races throughout the fall, winter, and early spring. Every time, I think getting up at 5 is impossible, but it’s not. It’s not that different from what I’m already doing, although my brain is stuck in the old rut, the one where a 5 am alarm would destroy my day.

I’m also finding that I can write more, without hurting other necessary things on the schedule. I set a daily goal for writing, that still allows me to do other things for my health and my sanity, and I’m achieving that goal, plus adding things, like some promotion or an extra blog post or some writing for the classes I occasionally teach.

I’m stunned by this.

And, as I mentioned earlier this year, I’m taking the occasional class. I haven’t been a student in a long time and I find myself with two conflicting attitudes. The first is the one I was trained with as a kid: do everything better than anyone else. (Tough for this dyslexic, as it’s always been.) The other is that I’m a grownup and I can choose what I do and don’t do.

That element of choice in a classroom setting for me as a student is odd, and one that is taking some getting used to.

But I’m digging into the work, reading things I wouldn’t normally read, or talking about topics I’m not really that familiar with. It feels…uncomfortable. In a good way.

When I was on the Oregon Coast, there were no classes to take. That’s one reason Dean and I taught. We’d get questions from students, and we’d bring in outside stimulus. Some of the classes, like the Business Master Class, were set up so we could learn about topics we didn’t know anything about.

There’s only so much you can do as a self-directed student, however. There are things that I haven’t even thought of before, things that crossed my path because I am in a learning environment, things I didn’t know existed.

Things like the Licensing Expo, which has actually changed the way Dean and I have approached our career.

But sometimes the things are as simple as the amateur play I mentioned in the previous blog post. I found myself thinking about things I hadn’t contemplated in years—what it feels like to have your skill levels be underneath your ambition, and how you get that skill up so that you can achieve your goals.

Yes, I’ve talked about that at writers conferences ad infinitum, especially in the 1990s, when I was speaking at a lot of them, but I was talking about writing. And honestly, writing is a safe learning environment. You don’t have to put yourself out there if you don’t want to.

But being a musician or an actor is not a safe learning environment. You have to be out in public, learning the same skills writers learn, but with an audience, as I mentioned last week.

As a young introverted writer, I learned a lot of workarounds. I learned to give speeches off the top of my head, with sketched-out notes, because working off a script aroused the perfection my mother had taught me, and actually made me nervous. I learned to moderate panels, so that they’d move quickly. (Something I had forgotten at 20Books this year. Sigh.)

I also learned some bad habits, such as saying no to challenging speaking topics or changing the channel on a TV show or movie that disturbed me in certain ways. (I’m being deliberately vague, because there are some disturbing topics that I’ll sit through.)

Being an editor taught me to quit reading when I got bored or didn’t like the story or felt it wasn’t right for me. And I carried that into other forms of entertainment.

When I bought season theater tickets, I vowed I would see each play (up to intermission), no matter what the topic. I’ve been doing that, and I’m seeing things I would have dismissed. Some I’ll see repeatedly (Come From Away, which initially sounded stupid to me) and some I’ll never see again (like that musical I mentioned last week).

I’m relearning how to be patient with other people’s art, a habit I hadn’t realized I had lost.

It makes me uncomfortable. Deeply uncomfortable, in fact. Because I had trained that skill away, except for a certain kind of manuscript reading, that I do only for workshops and editing. The rest of the time, I flit from one thing to another.

I’m having to relearn paying attention on a detail level.

That’s good for me on many levels. As a person who heads into her sixties this year, activating different pathways in my brain will keep my brain healthy.

It’s also good for me as an artist. I’m can challenge myself on technique or on writing deadlines all I want, but at certain point, I need to challenge myself on a subconscious level. And that means I have to think about things that normally wouldn’t catch my attention.

Which means I have to leave my comfort zone repeatedly.

I’ve noticed that a lot of living, in our thirties and beyond, is about making life more comfortable. Parents have a few years of physical discomfort (with lack of sleep when their kids are infants) and several years of challenges from the children themselves, as the kids find their own interests.

But after that, most people don’t challenge themselves. They live in the same house and/or the same community. They have the same friends. They hang out with people who share their political and religious beliefs. They read the same types of books, go to the same types of movies, watch the same kinds of television, play the same kinds of games. They even maintain the same schedule, year in and year out.

Some communities facilitate that way of living. There wasn’t a lot of schedule to be changed in Lincoln City, Oregon, population 7,000. I can live a different life every day of the year in Las Vegas, Nevada, population 2.2 million (not counting tourists).

The problem with the level of comfort that most of us achieve is that it makes us lazy and unwilling to challenge ourselves.

A challenge is work. You have to seek the challenge out, and then you have to figure out how to do it. It will activate parts of your brain (and/or your body) that hasn’t been activated in a long time. It’ll feel almost painful at times.

I’ve found, as I’m dealing with these challenges, that I am ruminating on what I’ve learned or I’m dreaming about it or I can’t wait to write about it.

When I get out of my comfort zone, I feel sharper. It also puts me on edge and makes me nervous. For the first time in years, I wonder if I can do something, rather than doing things that I know I can do.

I push that kind of challenge in my writing all the time. Can I do this project at the level I want it done? But I haven’t done that elsewhere in my life for years…until I moved here.

Comfort zones are comfortable because we’ve made them that way. And eventually you can get too used to being comfortable. You stop taking risks.

We’ve all read writers who have reached that point. They write in the same series all the time. They write in the same form. They write the same kind of stories.

And while their devoted fans love what the writer is doing, some casual fans drop away with a feeling of been there, done that. Eventually, the writer’s sales decline because new readers don’t come on. They don’t feel the verve of a crackling good book.

Instead, they’re getting a comfortable read.

Nothing wrong with that. I have my comfort authors. But I like a crackling good read as well. And I’m finding that not only do I like challenges, I had missed them.

It’s nice to have them back. Even if I’m busier than ever, and feeling like I’m on a knife’s edge half the time. I’m more productive than I’ve been in a decade or more, and I’m feeling a lot more alive.

And I count all of that as a good thing.


These weekly blogs have never been comfortable. They’re always challenging me, partly because of you folks. You ask the hard questions and send me links to fascinating things. Thank you!

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“Business Musings: Comfort Zones,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / iridi.


4 thoughts on “Business Musings: Comfort Zones

  1. What really sticks with me is the idea that many people stop taking risks in their 30’s. How odd.

    I did notice that lots of my friends would stop changing their hair even in their 20’s, but there’s something to be said to finding a style and sticking with it. I hadn’t tried to dig deeper over whether or not the rest of their lives ossified.

    For me, the biggest, scariest change has been pulling back from medicine last year to make more time for my kids and my writing. Scary but wonderful. I’m enjoying travelling to Egypt and the Galapagos, stepping on stage, creating new worlds, and game night with my kids.

    Enjoy this newfound energy and opportunity. Suck the marrow out of life!

  2. Very thought-provoking, Kris. I find myself falling into ruts a good bit, probably because 1. as a former political refugee, my life had been rife with turmoil and I seek stability from all that, and 2. routines help my glitter brain stay organized. But it’s good to do new things. The part-time job I took? I used the tips to buy a fully-weighted, 88-key MIDI controller. We don’t have a space for a piano, the kind I could get free from an older couple. This is not a plug-and-play, and I’m learning about synthesizers, speakers, various wires and connectors – a trade-off to have a quality keyboard that feels the closest to a real grand. My fun time means taking free lessons from a cute dude in GarageBand, experiencing AI-enhanced learning for the first time (It rocks, it really does.)
    All that because my girls are picking up fun string instruments, deviating from classical violin into heavy metal guitars and bases, and I just have no patience for the endless tuning before a session – their forays had me realize I’ve been missing music in my life.

    I’m way out of my comfort zone, exasperating young sales people with basic questions. Enriching my life will eventually enrich my writing too. And – my biggest “rationalization:” if I can put form to the music in my head, or set the occasional lyrics I think of to a tune, maybe I can license it out. There are ways to do that remotely now… I just hope it won’t distract from my writing.

    Yes, you can teach this dog in her mid-50’s new tricks 🙂

  3. From a writer perspective, I love the WMG challenges you guys offer. I can usually tell how badly I should/secretly want to take one on based on how much they thrill and scare when reading about them.

    And the way they are structured is so win-win that it provides a great perspective as to how much being uncomfortable, and all the fears associated with that, really only plays out in the mind. Also, how quickly uncomfortable can become the norm, since we are all much more adaptable than we even think.

    The challenges helped me toward my most productive writing year last year, and I’m hoping the Publishing Challenge will push me toward my best business year this year, too.

  4. It’s so cool to see how a change in location can be so positive. You’re an example of how stepping out of our comfort zones, facing uncertainty, can be exhilarating. I think we forget that. Uncertainty is usually scary. It can be both. I like what you said about how a challenge is work. And seeking out challenges takes work. I’ve recently participated in a few “easy” challenges – a writing one and an exercise one – that while fun do require work and commitment. Practicing on these smaller challenges helps us build up muscle for the bigger life changing ones that usually come our way. Very empowering.

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