Defining Comfort Zones

Over the years, I’ve managed to do a lot of traveling, at least within the United States. Once I turned 18 and bought a car, I would load up my little Mazda and go on adventures with friends, packing up and driving 12+ hours to Florida, visiting faraway cities on a whim, just to see a band play or visit someone at school.

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The day I bought my freedom: my 1993 Mazda MX-6. RIP.

This was taken to the next level from 2003-2005. Some friends were in a touring band with a decent following, and I was able to join them on a few tours as their merch guy. This afforded me the ability to visit parts of the country that I was used to only seeing on TV. These trips would take me across the Mississippi River for the first time, across endless cornfields, mountains and deserts, south to San Diego, North to Seattle, and back across the country again. The only major American cities I haven’t been to are Las Vegas, Boston, and New Orleans, and the states of Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and South Dakota are the only four states in the continental 48 where I haven’t set foot.

Touring isn’t an easy life. A lot of bands hate it, and it’s often a catalyst in members leaving. You’re spending weeks, sometimes months at a time with only six or seven other people, and there’s no guarantee that everyone’s going to have compatible personalities. I vividly remember wanting nothing more than to kill one or two of the other guys for weeks at a time. At home, we were good friends, but in a metal tube hurtling down the highway, we couldn’t stand each other. There’s a whole host of other factors at play, as well. Getting lost (we didn’t have a GPS, and simple flip-phones were the norm in 2003-2005), low turnouts, arguments with promoters, questionable hotels, van trouble, and venues in horrific neighborhoods (I’m going to single Detroit out here). The band I was with was a successful headlining act, but opening bands were always struggling with money for hotel rooms, food, and fuel. Often times, they were eating only once a day, and sleeping in their vans at highway rest stops or parking lots.

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The glamour of touring.

But all of these problems aside, touring was a huge adventure, especially for someone who hadn’t spent much time outside of his home city. The biggest disappointment in this chapter of my life, though… the itinerary was more or less pre-determined. Want to stop and see the Grand Canyon? Tough shit, we have to be in Phoenix in three hours to load equipment. Wake up, drive, load in, soundcheck, sell t-shirts and CDs, pack up, drive, sleep. It’s an endless cycle with barely enough time to sit down for a decent meal.

These tours got me accustomed to massive hauls on the open road. Trips to Florida became a cakewalk, and I laughed when people called eight hours a “long drive”.

I had expanded my comfort zone significantly in those two years. There’s no denying that these trips were a lot of hard work, but once I had “been there and done that”, I didn’t have any reservations about getting in my car and going wherever I wanted in my early twenties.


 

I stopped touring in 2005, the result of my making one too many errors, misplacing our cargo in Lawrence, KS. I was quietly let go by the band, and settled into a comfortable routine in suburban Pennsylvania, although the desire to travel was certainly still present.

Unfortunately, by 2010, my comfortable little bubble of a life had completely destroyed my adventurous outlook. On a vacation to a North Carolina beach with my at-the-time girlfriend and a few others, I spent the week longing for for home. I missed my couch, my bed, my TV, and my routine. Coupled with depression (brought about by low Testosterone, but that’s for another post),  I had an awful, dark, and gloomy trip, and my misery was only alleviated slightly by driving back to PA, to my familiar surroundings.

In early 2011, I had allowed my mental state to slip into absolute disrepair, and my comfort zone shrank to an unmanageable level. I was pathetic. Even driving 4o minutes away to visit my parents became an insurmountable obstacle. Anxiety and Agoraphobia ruled my existence, as I was terrified to even get out from under the blankets on my couch. I would lay there, panicked and anxious, watching episodes of Seinfeld and old movies, suffering slow meltdowns for days at a time.


 

I never saw a psychiatrist or sought treatment for this condition. However, once the acute anxiety dissipated a bit, I knew I had to find a way to fix this problem. I had no idea what I was doing, but settled on the understanding that I was in “a rut” and planned a trip to Colorado in August. I wanted to yank myself out of my comfort zone, to just crack that motherfucker wide open again.

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The Colorado trip did just that for me. I was surrounded by the incredible scenery of Rocky Mountain National Park, rode my Downhill bike at some amazing spots, and drove home with a different sort of anxiety and sadness:

Why do I live in Pennsylvania? The West is amazing, and I love exploring out here. I have wasted so much time living in a tiny sphere. What have I done with my life?

It was simply the realization of how much damage I had done by staying within my (metaphorical and physical) comfort zones.

With newly-found confidence, and a lack of anxiety, I started taking trips again, at first for the sole purpose of riding my Downhill bike. Loading up my car with bikes and gear and driving for hours upon hours upon hours became my new obsession. Nowhere was “too far” to drive. Northern New Jersey. New Hampshire. Utah. Colorado again. I wanted to build my sense of adventure, anticipation, excitement, and never let go of it like I did from 2006-2010.

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Highland. Still one of my favorite places.

I made all measures of progress in the period of exile from 2012-2014, going far out of my comfort zone in all areas of my life, even starting this blog about it.

After three years, in June of 2015 I decided enough was enough. I was going to leave my job, develop location-dependent income streams, and move to Southern California, the only place in the US where all of the following is possible:

  • Weather stays warm, sunny, and comfortable year-round.
  • There’s a beach. Lots of them, in fact. I want to learn to surf properly.
  • I can ride Downhill. SoCal has Snow Summit and a host of smaller local spots. The DH scene there is absolutely thriving, and is home to many elite-caliber athletes like Aaron Gwin and Kyle Strait (both of whom I want to train).
  • If I want winter, I can have it. Snow Summit (again) and Bear Mountain are legendary spots.
  • It’s within driving distance of some amazing places I’ve never been, like Zion, Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Baja Mexico.
  • My girlfriend will be able to get a job as a nurse.
  • If I need to work a traditional job (worst-case scenario temporary cash-infusion backup plan) there’s many options.

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This is proving to be quite an undertaking. It’s taking a lot of money, hard work, and plenty of time (my girlfriend won’t be done with school until December).

Doing this is, for me, a colossal step out of my comfort zone. No, I’m not exactly moving to Chiang Mai with just a backpack full of clothes and a laptop, but my priorities are different than anyone else’s. Pittsburgh (or within two hours of the city) has always been my home base, my jumping-off point. Moving out West will be unfamiliar, strange, stressful, difficult, and exciting. The plans are in motion, and I’m counting down the days.



 

However, once I started developing a plan for this move, I started to understand that I’d be required to confront a related issue, one that would serve to cause major problems if I couldn’t get it sorted out before I moved: I hadn’t been on a plane since I was nine years old. Part of it was because I hadn’t NEEDED to fly, as I’d always driven. The other part was that I simply felt uneasy and anxious about getting on a plane.

There’s really no way around it. If I want to live 3,000 miles away, the only way I’ll ever be able to get multiple cars across the country or come home to visit family is by getting on an airplane. I had to learn how to do it, so I booked a short trip to Florida to see my friend Dave in late February.

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It truly was a trial by fire. My departing flight happened in terrible weather conditions, from a tiny airport an hour outside the city. I was in the absolute last seat, stuffed between the window and a large, flatulent woman. The engines were pushed to full throttle so quickly on the short runway that I was slammed back in my seat with G-Forces I’d expect while riding in my friend’s Nissan GT-R. Other passengers were gasping and groaning, and we hadn’t even left the ground yet.

In an attempt to clear the fog and snow, the plane pitched (what seemed to be) straight up, plowing through spine-compressing turbulence and undulating up and down, side to side movements which got no better by the time we leveled off. The fasten seatbelt sign was never off for more than 2 minutes before coming back on again. The woman next to me kept farting, crying, and moaning. The engines were powering up and powering down every few minutes. Hydraulics and compressors were whining and whooshing. I tried to drink a diet coke, but my hands were shaking so badly that I spilled it all over my tray table. It was a lot to take in, so I attempted to calm myself, cracked open my tablet and kept my mind busy instead with some music and PD Mangan’s book, Muscle Up (it’s excellent, by the way). By the time we landed, I was exhausted, but I had done it.

The trip itself was excellent. Temperatures hovered around the high sixties. My friend Dave and I lifted weights, visited some awesome beaches, lifted more weights, ate some good food, and recovered in the hot tub and the pool, under the shade of a picturesque canopy of palm trees. We discussed everything from personal training to Milo Yiannopoulos. I met some new people, got some writing done, and saw the contrast of what a warm, temperate climate did for me, opposed to the melancholy, overcast chill of Pittsburgh in late February.

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This was the trade-off. I had to say “fuck my comfort zone”, get on a plane, and deal with a bouncing, shaky ride, fart stink, and general sensory overload for two hours. I was rewarded with a great couple of days. The flight was 1/10 the travel time of driving down and half the cost.

When I was in the terminal, waiting for my flight home, I talked to some other passengers who had been on the same plane as me on the way down. “It was the scariest flight I’ve ever been on” I was told by several people. It was, in fact, unusually bad, but I had no frame of reference at the time. I thought that flight was simply what flying felt like. As it happened, my flight home was buttery smooth, no more disconcerting than riding on a bus. Knowing beforehand where my mind would go, I had already taken measures to mitigate the problem. I queued up a playlist of electronic music, turned the volume up in my noise-canceling headphones, and focused my vision on the book in my lap. It ended up being an utter cakewalk.

The next day, I stayed well out of my comfort zone, attending a fiery discussion hosted by Milo Yiannoupolos. Five years ago, the idea of flying on a plane, then heading to such a controversial event would have been utterly unfathomable to me.

The lesson in all of this is something most people have a grasp on, but don’t really do all that well at putting into practice: getting out of your comfort zone encourages growth. Ask any member of the armed forces, a professional athlete, or anyone who is constantly on the path to self-improvement, and they’ll likely give you far more effective examples than I have. One can’t even begin to analyze the huge differences of scale between flying on a commercial airliner and something truly rigorous and life threatening, such as Basic Training or actual combat.

As for me, I’ve seen what happens to me when I stay in my comfort zone. It’s a miserable, monotonous, complacent existence that only gets worse as time passes me by. On the other hand, I’ve never had any sort of actual negative circumstances arise from breaking out. My shitty flight last Thursday is about as bad as it’s ever been, really. I’ve seen some amazing places, done some exciting things, gotten myself into far better shape and met some new people, but I can honestly say it’s all just been the tip of the iceberg when it comes to breaking out of normalcy. I’d encourage everyone to do it, run with it, and reject the quiet desperation of day-in, day-out sameness. It truly is a path to misery.

 

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