Lately I’ve been getting a lot of emails from former students, wondering what to do with themselves when grown-up dreams get bitch-slapped by recession-era reality. One, from a talented writer, whose job fell through after only a matter of weeks, particularly hit home. Should she stay in the big city, where she had just scored the perfect apartment, she wondered, or move back to the comfort of her middle-of-the-country roots.
Moving home, she wrote, was “somewhat appealing. But then again, not at all.”
Which reminded me of an apocryphal story I once heard that speaks — in a very weird way — to the tyranny of the comfort zone. It goes like this: There was this housewife who for years cut the ends off a roast beef before she put it in the oven, until someone asked her why. That was the way her mother always did it, she replied, but then got to wondering herself. And so for the first time, she asked her elderly mother why SHE cut the ends off the roast. Her mother’s reply? Because the pan wasn’t big enough.
And therein lies the danger of sticking only with what you know — why, as Shannon wrote in Perfection: A Zero Love Game, comfort zones can morph into prisons of our own making: You stop asking why. You forget to explore. It’s not just about moving back to your high school bedroom after college, or cooking dinner the same way your mother always did. It’s also about surrounding yourself with people just like you, people who think like you think and do like you do — whether they’re hipsters or jocks, high school buddies or sorority sisters, take-no-prisoners business types or stay-at-home moms. If you’re stuck in a homogeneous universe, as comfort zones so often are, your world shrinks. And there’s the danger. Before long, you not only become trapped by the norm of your own particular niche, you cease to question it. Choices that take you beyond it — in any direction — get scary. Cognitive dissonance, the method by which we learn and grow? Out the window.
To a certain extent, all this comfort zone business can be a cliche of the quarter-life crisis, which Washington Post reporter Lindsay Minnema tackled anew last month:
It’s not a new phenomenon, but today’s young people seem to experience it more acutely than the young people who came before them. And with the tumultuous economy and job market meltdown of the past year, recent grads are getting a double helping of quarter-life anxiety.
Unlike young adults of generations past, many of whom were married and settled in their careers by their mid-20s, today’s college grads experience a longer period of transition to the settled-down stage, said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From Late Teens Through the Twenties.”
“It is a unique time of life when people are not entirely dependent on their parents . . . but they don’t have a stable life structure with marriage and parenthood and stable work,” Arnett said. “They go in a lot of directions, change jobs a lot, change love partners. They go through a long period of figuring out who they are and how they fit in the world.”
Arnett believes this transition period can be positive, with its opportunities for growth and adventure. But for some people, the turmoil brings worry, fears of failure or of being trapped by responsibilities, or depression.
On that latter note, Minnema quotes Leslie Seppinni, a marriage and family therapist and doctor of clinical psychology in Beverly Hills, Calif., who suggests that one route out of their funk is for quarter-lifers to expand their horizons:
Instead of stewing in their misery, quarter-lifers should focus on what they can change, Seppinni said. “Although it is a time of depression, it is also a time of being creative in getting yourself to do something out of your comfort zone,” she said. “Embrace the challenge.”
Meanwhile, what did I write to that former student? Nothing profound. Just this:
I once held a job for three days. This is true. They were the longest, most awful days of my life. But at least I knew. Your next step will likely evolve, rather than present itself as such. Meanwhile, don’t give up. And yes, you should definitely test the waters in ——- to see if you like the city, by working as a barrista if need be. If you packed up and left right now, you’d always wonder if you had missed out. You may love it. Or you may hate it. In which case, you can skip away happily in search of something new…
In other words, you’ll give yourself the chance to figure it out.