“I’m going to take you out of your comfort zone” Those simple but confusing words. Hang on you think, what’s a comfort zone? Is it an actual place? You know, like on the Tube? Is it outside zones 1 & 2? What about Stevenage? Is that outside the comfort zone? I’ve only been there once myself. I wasn’t very comfortable. But what is an actual comfort zone? Is it a room? A padded room with fleecy baby grows, coloured lights, soft music, bean bags, pizzas and bubble wrapped furniture perhaps? Like a giant chill out room crossed with soft play area? People are then presumably taken from there, dragged by their hair to a small stark cell where they are hosed down with cold water and given a prison style beating?
Okay, okay. I get the basic concept. It’s derived from the Quality area of business as a way of challenging people to mentally develop themselves beyond their perceived capabilities. But it’s used so frequently now it’s become an entity on its own. It’s become somehow symbolic of the need to pigeonhole the inward thinking, digital obsessed protective bubbles we all occupy. It’s an unpleasant product of our time and is, for my liking, used far more often than is healthy.
Examples of its prevalence are everywhere. It’s particularly popular in reality TV shows and the likes of the X-Factor (Jeremy Kyle with singing) when someone has to do something they don’t want to do. Like sing the verse of a Craig David song perhaps. But it’s not just confined to these areas, oh no. I finally got round to watching the excellent Frost/Nixon film recently and during an exchange between Frost and his producer, Frost explained that his forthcoming interview with Nixon was supposed to challenge the perception of him a “just a talk show host and put him outside of his comfort zone”. This particular scene in the film was set in 1972. There is no way Frost would have uttered that line, no way at all. This was the Seventies. Being stressed hadn’t even been invented by then, let alone comfort zones or the like. Even when reading the otherwise brilliant football autobiography ‘I’m Not Really Here’, its author Paul Lake goes on to describe his then youth team coach Tony Book “taking them all out of their comfort zones”. In 1986? Not even close I’m afraid matey.
Did the Captains on the Somme turn ashen faced and grave to their famished and shell shocked men and say “Right boys, the orders have come through on the wire from command; we’re going over the top at dawn. Now I know this is out of your comfort zone but…” No they didn’t.
It’s a worrying post-rationalisation of things. Will future history teachers describe Hitlers assault on Russia as him wanting to step outside his comfort zone? Will the Romans be described as marching North from their comfort zone in Southern European? Did the Captains on the Somme turn ashen faced and grave to their famished and shell shocked men and say “Right boys, the orders have come through on the wire from command; we’re going over the top at dawn. Now I know this is out of your comfort zone but…” No they didn’t. So let keep this parlance where it is in our conceptual evolution: a very modern low point.
Perhaps the area of life this has permeated the most is the modern office. As we know the days of moustachioed blokes eating curries at their desk, smoking 20 Embassy No.6’s, perusing The Daily Sport and growling into Formica desk phones are long gone. But maybe that was the comfort zone? Instead a herd of teambuilding consultants have flooded in through the gap. Generally ex-military, self-made, failed businessmen who if you peeled open their heads you would probably find a crashed model Airfix spitfire, some plastic soldiers and a load of ketchup sprayed everywhere. Destined to pester ‘UK Based’ call centre staff with marker pens and clips from Youtube for years and years; they peddle their sinister promise to “take you all out of your comfort zones”. A statement as disconcertingly vague and overtly menacing as can be possible. Does it mean some demeaning and childish but slightly exciting role-play with your mortified workmates? Or can you look forward to some water boarding and electrocution based torture, using your genitals as the on/off switch?
It’s the ultimate passive-aggressive statement of intent and therefore perfect for the modern day workplace - a place so tactfully aware of boundaries and legislation that a new language has evolved to facilitate the anger, bullying and sexual politics that pinballs miserably around the open-plan rat cage. The ultimate selling point being that being out of your comfort zone is somehow good for you. Somehow this will benefit you or provide some kind of challenge that you can rise to meet. Like conquering Everest or beating cancer or something. When actually all they’re talking about is moving desks or implementing new software. Wankers.
So, just don’t come round here pseudo-threatening me with your comfort zones. I’ll jump through your hoops and smile when I do it but why not park the comfort zones in the long grass? Run me up your flagpole, fire me into your blue sky whilst having me thinking outside my box and push my envelopes wherever you want but save me the cod-intellectualisation of it all. Comfort Zones, you’re no friend of mine.
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