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Quinn McDonald : Moving Out of Your Comfort Zones

Moving Out of Your
Comfort Zones

By Quinn McDonald

This week, I took a motorcycle driving course on safety and defensive driving; it's a good idea to know how to avoid people who are both in cars and on the phone, as well as the skid-danger of leaves and spilled gas. It never occurred to me to think of it as a creative exercise

The first night of class, I looked around. I was the oldest person; the only other woman was half my age; there were 20 young men. As we introduced ourselves, it became obvious that most of the people in class belonged to riding clubs, repaired or rebuilt their bikes, and had common friendships. My comfort zone was shrinking.

When the rubber meets the road

The next morning, at 7 a.m., when we met for the riding class, my comfort zone shrank to the size of a postage stamp on the more-than-football field-size riding range

I did not feel brave, or empowered or creatively inspired to learn something new. I was right back in seventh grade, not fitting in, feeling exposed, stupid and weak.

The moves we learned seemed impossible — the curves tighter than any on the road, the turns sharp and unbanked, maneuvers that demanded sharp acceleration, swerving, and braking suddenly.

I began to feel mean, to dislike the younger students who could perform the tight figure-8 turns without fear of dumping their bikes. The other woman in the class requested to take the afternoon session as well as the morning session. "I'm a perfectionist," she said, "I want to get better faster." I wanted to stuff gravel in her helmet. My hips and knees ached from the too-high foot-pegs of the loaner bikes. I couldn't imagine an additional five hours on the range.

I was far out of my comfort zone. The usual touchstones of creativity was not the point here — in this class, success and safety depend on doing exactly what you are told and doing it right the first time. Clear rules, strictly applied, are a must for class safety, with 22 people riding loaner bikes fairly close together.

It didn't help that I recognized my own tendencies to perfectionism in the other woman, and the recognition wasn't flattering.

Perfectionism is no one's ally. It allows for only peak performances, which isn't realistic over time. It results in chronic self-criticism and negative chatter in your head, as you criticize yourself for every failure, every weakness, every less-than-perfect action, thought, and plan. It's exhausting and destructive.

On test day, we lined up for instructions. The tight figure-8 was part of the test. The instructor explained that crossing outside the painted rectangle would cost points, putting your foot down would cost more points, and not completing the figure would cost the most points. After the figure-8, we were to accelerate up the lane to the swerve-test.

My stomach dropped. I was not good at the tight figure-8. Then it occurred to me that I didn't need to get the most points; just enough to pass the test. Knowing that I did not need to be perfect had an immediate calming effect.

The perfectionist moved into the box and executed a flawless figure-8 in just half the space given. There were no extra points for this maneuver, and she had left herself less room to accelerate. She couldn't execute the swerve maneuver with enough speed, and lost serious points there. I lost points for going outside the box, but had the full range for run up, and lost no points on the swerve.

I passed; the perfectionist did not because of the failed swerve.

That horrible feeling of awkwardness and stupidity at the beginning of learning a new skill isn't fun. It doesn't feel like growth, it feels like a scab of awkwardness. Use the motorcyclist's trick of looking where you want to go, knowing the bike will follow that path. Look ahead, keep breathing through the hard part, and you will emerge with a new skill. The rest is just practice. •

© Quinn McDonald, 2007. All rights reserved.

Quinn McDonaldQuinn McDonald is a writer, artist and certified creativity coach. More »

1/20/07