What I learned from a summer of comfort zone challenges, meditation, journaling, and reading
I spent this summer in Tel Aviv, Israel where I interned at a company called Axis Innovation as part of an Israeli summer program for college students called Tamid. When I signed up as a fun way to get job experience abroad, I never could have expected the transformative personal growth that would occur over the 8 weeks I spent in this country.
To help provide some context to my relationship with personal development, coming into the summer, I was already familiar with mindfulness in a number of ways. Towards the end of school this year, I had created somewhat of a morning routine that involved meditation and journaling to help improve my ability to remain present and to express my thoughts better. This had been sparked in large part by an emotional intelligence class I had taken in the fall. While I had definitely noticed clear impacts from these practices, they were taking up a lot of time and often had to be done at random points during the day, never fully permitting a clear morning routine.
I had often been told that traveling abroad would give me a broader perspective on life and I was encouraged to approach my time away from America with a “baby mindset,” meaning that I should be extremely curious about my surroundings, ask a lot of questions, and be open to adapting how I act or what I believe. I took this very much to heart.
As I arrived in Israel, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed. I had to adjust to living in a new city, country, and continent in which I didn’t understand the primary language. I had to meet 200 new kids on the program, get used to a new job, and deal with my recently sprained ankle that had me in a full boot. While other kids on the program began to transition into regular schedules of commuting to work, going to the beach, and partying, I worked from home and spent most of my time listening to audiobooks, meditating, and working on my startup remotely, trying to make the extra time I had as productive as possible. While I was certainly making the most of the time that I could, it was inevitable that I felt that I was missing out on the novel experiences that my peers were able to have.
During the first weekend trip of the program, I started to meet a lot of new people partially due to the essence of the trip, but also because it was something I was setting out to achieve. One of these people that I got to know was a guy named Seth Wernick, who really helped take my self-growth to the next level. We had very similar backgrounds and interests — coming from comfortable upbringings, attending similar colleges, playing basketball and meditating. After we really started to connect over our mutual interests, he mentioned a new personal development tactic that he was employing: comfort zone challenges.
The idea behind these challenges is that fear is ingrained in our minds instinctively as an evolutionary trait and that the majority of what we are afraid of is without good reason. We are programmed for survival. As Mo Gawdat mentions in Solve For Happy, you simply are not the voice in your head. If you challenge yourself every day to do things that make you uncomfortable, you can learn to not let fear stand in the way of your goals, and rather to grow beyond what you previously thought possible.
I had heard of doing embarrassing tasks to try to condition yourself not to care what other people think but had never taken the concept seriously or considering trying something like that regularly. The idea of a comfort zone had been highly stigmatized for me. “Stepping out of your comfort zone” to me was just a mantra that teachers and counselors told you to do to get you to participate in activities, and as a result was just a cliché that never meant anything to me. When I saw it in a new light, I got hooked.
My first challenge was with Seth as we were trying to get a restaurant to serve us something totally different from what the menu offered. As the waitress asked what I wanted, there was a little rush of both adrenaline and anxiety as I pleaded with her to force the chef to create my personal concoction. While I didn’t get a Spaghetti Pizza with Alfredo sauce, I did finally convince her to put a different flavored chicken on my salad. And as I ate my BBQ chicken, all I could think about was when and where my next challenge would be.
And so it continued, each day completing a new challenge — getting most of the ideas from this article, from Google, and from my own imagination, focusing on exactly what I knew would make me uncomfortable. The types of challenges were all over the place, from embarrassing myself in front of strangers, to learning new skills, to telling the people that were close to me how much they mattered. Some of my favorite ones are pictured below.
As I began to really dive in with comfort zone challenges, I also was developing a really solid morning routine that involves 10 minutes of meditation (either the Daily Calm or Tony Robbins’ Morning Priming) and 8 minutes of journaling, including three things I am grateful for, three things that would make today great, one thing I am proud of, what I am thinking about right now, and a space for ideas I pick up on during the day from podcasts or books. Plus, I was moving forward with my physical therapy and making more and more close friends on the program. All of this together allowed my summer to really start to take off.
One large takeaway that I could never have really processed without going through these challenges is that people will accept whatever it is you do. Although it may take a quick adjustment, friends, acquaintances, and especially strangers will almost always accept what you are doing as just who you are. With strangers, this was extremely apparent. Whether I was singing Miley Cyrus at a bus-stop, laying on the ground in a crowded restaurant, or freestyling on a street corner, strangers would practically always try to ignore me or just make adjustments based on what I was doing (ie: walk around me, put in headphones etc.) But, I also experienced a similar sentiment with people that I knew. One example that illustrated this was on one of our trips, I somewhat jokingly decided to lead a meditation as an evening activity for the rest of the students on the program. When I ended up taking it seriously and explaining that it was actually something that I regularly did, people really appreciated it and something that I didn’t really share with others turned out to be something that people came to respect about me.
As corny as it sounds, this process has shifted my perspective on approaching challenges and new difficulties from something to dread into opportunities for personal growth. I have a newly gained respect for my own ability to accomplish new things and while I used to jump to find the first excuse I could latch onto to not do something frightening, I now find myself saying yes to things that push me to be better. While today I am improving by jumping out of planes and being willing to make a fool out of myself to strangers on the bus, I know that not too long from now I will use this mindset to make life-changing decisions with far greater implications. Each day I am getting better and just observing the progress I have made in such a short period of time, I am starting to grasp the incredible potential and room for further growth that I have. And that is what motivates me.
So, I invite you to start small. Call an old friend right now. Give the person next to you a compliment. Delete 10 apps you don’t use anymore. Just do it right now and see how it feels. Then, go bigger. And then bigger. And watch your expectations and your capabilities transform. You’re way more powerful than you know.