The Panic Zone
You are probably familiar with this meme:
But it's inaccurate.
Here’s my version:
Let’s get clear on the terms:
YOUR COMFORT ZONE: Everything is easy breezy here. You are rolling along just fine. Not growing. Not stretching. Just coasting.
YOUR DISCOMFORT ZONE: Where the magic actually happens. You have everything you need to survive here even though it is uncomfortable. This is where you stretch. You change. It hurts. It is awkward. You feel stupid sometimes. You make mistakes. You push to the edge of your potential. You acquire new skills. You sharpen your tools. You deepen your relationship with yourself and your art. You turn pro.
YOUR PANIC ZONE: Imagine that you are drowning. There are a bunch of bystanders shouting things like “Swim! You can do it. Just swim for crying out loud!” or “Grab a life vest!” The only problem is, there are no life vests and you literally do not know how to swim. You are drowning, and there is nothing you can do to change it. THIS is the panic zone. In this space, you are acutely aware that you do not have the technique or the tools or the support that you need to survive.
It is really important that you are able to tell the difference between these three zones. The comfort zone serves its purpose. It keeps you safe. And, of course, there are circumstances and environments in which you are best served by staying in your comfort zone. The danger to your artistry comes when you are in environments that are ripe for your growth and development, but instead you submit to your Imposter, you choose fear, and you stay comfortable.
If you are committed to a growth mindset, (which I must assume you are. I mean, you are reading a blog about personal development) you must live in the discomfort zone whenever possible, pushing to the edges of your potential. This is a choice. This is YOUR choice. You will feel like an imposter. You will feel fear. And you will CHOOSE growth. You will CHOOSE discomfort. You will SEEK the discomfort zone because you seek to level up, to improve, to simply get better at what you do. Artists CHOOSE faith over fear. Artists SEEK the discomfort zone.
If you move into the panic zone, however, you will not grow. In fact, the skills you DO have will begin to deteriorate. Like a drowning person, you will become aware that death is imminent. Not literal death, of course, but the death of things that are vital to your artistic life. The first thing that begins to die is your love for the work that you do. And once you lose that, you are likely to stop flailing and simply let yourself sink below the surface, because what is the point?
So what do you do about this? How do you begin to identify the difference between discomfort and panic? When you find yourself in the panic zone, then what?
The answer is simple but not easy. The answer is: technique, tools, and support.
Let’s get clear on these.
TECHNIQUE: This is the cumulative skill set that has been developed over time by means of repetition and iteration, and it amounts to “your craft”. You can depend on your technique to sustain your instrument and allow you to push yourself without fear of injury (physical or mental). Your technique is so ingrained that you can measure how you are doing, make an assessment, and adjust in order to further improve. If you are seeking to build a house, for example, technique will not only allow you to complete the house, but to make certain that it will stand sturdy and not collapse when outside elements like furniture and inhabitants start to move in.
TOOLS: These are surefire and efficient devices you have acquired in order to deal with very specific needs. Some tools are sustainable. Some tools are simply meant to get you through the moment and quickly on to the next thing. Many artists mistake tools for technique, but they are not the same thing. Back to the house-building example, when it is time to start putting down the floorboards, you need tools. A hammer and some nails. Look, you made a floor. Those tools worked great because the circumstance and the needs were specific. Now it is time to install the electricity. Put the hammer and nails away. You need different tools for that job. Try to install electric wires with a nail and you just might get electrocuted.
SUPPORT: This comes in many different forms, but whatever the form, 100% of the time you will know it is support because it’s purpose is progress. The people you choose to seek support from actively help you strengthen your technique and acquire new tools. If it holds you back rather than moving you forward, it is not support. It might look like love. It might look like kindness. It might look like friendship or camaraderie. It might even look like coaching or teaching. But it only qualifies as support if it helps you make progress. Remember the electricity you needed to install in the house? Turns out that when you tried to install it, you got zapped a few times. Good thing you know an electrician who is willing to help. That person can come in and teach you how to properly install the wires without getting electrocuted. Next time, you'll know how to do it yourself. That is support.
Is it technique, tools, or support? Identify what it is and then go in pursuit of it. The great news is that once you name what is missing and commit to filling it in, you immediately get to return to the discomfort zone. And that is where the magic happens.