A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there. –Fractal Enlightenment on Facebook
When kids are learning to read, we say they are in their comfort zone when they can read every word or at least 95% of the words in the book. When they can read fewer than 90% of the words, we say they are at “frustration level.” The problem is that we know kids don’t get any better at reading by staying in their comfort zone, so we take them out of that zone. We don’t throw them into deep water and expect them to swim, however. We read with them, so that when they get to the hard word, we’re there to help. Pretty soon, around 4th grade or so, if they’re reading at grade level, we notice that they automatically try to figure out unfamiliar words using several processes. Some teachers like to talk about “context clues,” or trying to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the larger context of the sentence or the paragraph. Unfortunately, real-life reading doesn’t offer as many context clues as one might hope, so that skill doesn’t get used much. Good readers at that age do seem to know how to make connections and educated guesses.
For example, a youngster was reading a book to me in which the narrator was describing scenery, mentioning “squat bushes.” Since “squat” is normally a verb, I wanted to know whether this little girl knew the adjective meaning. I asked her if the bushes were tall or short.
“Short,” she replied confidently.
“How do you know that?”
“Because,” she replied, “when you squat down, you get shorter.” That was a perfect guess, and that illustrates how kids use what they already know to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar new words.
There is another process that all humans go through when learning something new. It’s so automatic that most people are unaware of it, and therefore can’t really articulate it very well. We all build a sort of dictionary in our heads for words that we meet. We assign the word a tentative meaning. We go with that tentative meaning until we see the word again. If the tentative meaning we have assigned to the word seems to work in the new sentence, our tentative meaning gets strengthened. If the tentative meaning we assigned when we first encountered the word doesn’t fit in the new sentence, we have to alter the meaning a bit. When we encounter the word a third time, we can see which of our possible word meanings seems to fit. and we go with that. When we are comfortable with the word and its meaning and usage, we use the word ourselves. It’s a process of trial and error, and it does take time.
Experts tell us that growth is impossible in the comfort zone, and we can see this at school when we educate your kids. Adults talk about leaving their comfort zones, too, but they are not learning to read. Instead, they’re learning about life. They’re learning to do some new and uncomfortable things. The problem is that we think we have to leave our comfort zone all at once, cold turkey. That sure doesn’t work with kids, and I don’t think it works with adults, either.
Notice that outside of our comfort zone, there is a fairly thick area that is known as our Growth Zone. Then there’s a much larger area called the Panic Zone. The idea is to constantly enlarge the comfort zone while pushing the Growth Zone ever outward. Eventually, I think the Panic Zone gets a little smaller and thinner, and it gets pushed outward, as well.
Everyone has different Comfort Zones. A certain experience might be in your Comfort Zone, but it might be in my Growth Zone or Panic Zone. This is a good thing, because those of us for whom a given experience is in the Comfort Zone can help those who are ready for the new experience. When are you ready? I would say it’s when something is in your Growth Zone and no longer in your Panic Zone. As our zones keep expanding, a particular experience that was once in the Panic Zone moves into the Growth Zone. The experience doesn’t get any easier or harder. Rather, we become more and more ready for the experience based on our previous experiences.
OK, so if you want to leave your comfort zone, a good rule of thumb would be to find someone whose comfort zone is larger than yours, and let them assist you as you enter your Growth Zone (their Comfort Zone.) You can do the same for others, accompanying them into new experiences for them that are more familiar to you.
If you venture out of your Comfort Zone and find that you have to run back, don’t give up. It’s like going swimming in a pool where the water is a little bit cold. It’s hard to get in, at first, but once you’re in the water, you adjust to the temperature and you’re fine. You might have to stick your toe in, first, shiver for a minute, then wade in up to your knees, stop, then go a little deeper. You do it in increments. Some people just jump in, and that’s fine, but is there anything wrong with doing something new in small increments? Not that I can think of.
We need to be gentle with ourselves and be willing to accept help when we try something new. And we have to be aware when others are out of their comfort zone. We have to be sensitive to their discomfort. If we all work together, we can individually and collectively move out of our Comfort Zones and into our Growth Zones.
As the new year approaches, it’s a great time to think of something new that you’d like to try, something that’s in your Growth Zone but not yet in your Comfort Zone. Contemplate this, and decide how you plan to make your changes. Who will help you? How will you feel when you are able to do this thing that is beyond you now? What incremental things can you do, what small steps can you take, to achieve your goal? 🙂