The unexpected joy of a (not too) scary project

Finding the comfortably uncomfortable

As a freelancer, it’s easy to avoid the things we don’t want to do. For instance, I’m happy to report I’ve not been on a train in rush hour in 2020. But it’s also very easy to pretend we don’t want to do something because we don’t like it, when really we’re just scared of it. 

Knowing when – and indeed, how – to push myself is something I struggle with in self-employment. In the absence of an annual review, I find I have no structure in which to set stretch goals in a supportive forum. Beyond logistics, though, there’s another reason I struggle to push myself – because pushing yourself often invites facing your fears. And I just hate being scared. Both professionally and personally, I don’t operate well out of a place of fear. 

Despite the fact that neuroscience has found that fear-based problem-solving is not particularly effective, we’re bombarded with the message that in order to succeed, we should seek out the things that scare us. There are TED talks about life happening outside the comfort zone and books titled “The Discomfort Zone”, all espousing the power of putting ourselves in the firing-line of fear. I’m still haunted by the lyrics of Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen Song, badgering me to “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

While I find these slogans inspiring to an extent, the discourse nonetheless leaves me feeling like a scared loser. There’s an implication that we’re supposed to spend our lives in a constant state of anxiety. Melody Wilding encapsulated this in her defence of comfort zones. “When I pushed my comfort zone relentlessly, as the leadership experts advise, it led me straight into burnout,” she writes. “I learned the hard way to define – and, more importantly, to honour – the boundaries of my comfort zone.” As Wilding writes, it’s not about living outside your comfort zone, it’s about reaching the comfortable edge of it. 

In the early 1900s, the childhood psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed the concept of the “zone of proximal development”. It’s the gap between what a child can do without help, and what they can do with support from an adult. Vygotsky posited that when a child is encouraged by an adult, they will be able to fulfil a task they otherwise would not be able to master on their own. 

This idea of leaning on someone for support and encouragement to achieve a goal is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. This week, I wrapped up season two of the podcast I made with my friend, the writer Tiffany Philippou. When I embarked on the podcast project, it had all the ingredients to scare me – I was putting myself out there, I had no audio experience, it was a big unknown. These fears were greatly reduced, however, by one key factor – I wasn’t taking this on alone. Working with a friend made this project comfortably uncomfortable. I’d entered the adults’ section of the zone of proximal development. 

The concept of a healthy amount of fear has always struck as a contradiction in terms. So instead of pushing myself to seek out fear, I’ll continue to push myself to ask for help and in doing so, find unexpected joy.