Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Out of My Comfort Zone

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 2, 2011

I’ve been out of the country for the past two weeks, in England and in Israel. (In fact I’m still overseas—and will be for two more weeks.) That’s why I haven’t put up any current posts. I’ve been so far out of my comfort zone, I couldn’t make myself sit down and write. How far out? Panic out. Serious freak-out out, just because I couldn’t figure out how to get online, or make my phone work, or read street signs, or even, for one memorable twenty-minute stretch, get my Hertz car out of an underground parking garage.

It got me to thinking about creative panic.

The trip I’m on is a research trip. I’m interviewing people for a book. One of them, whom I met just yesterday, is one of the world’s great fighter pilots. He was telling me about a time when his engine cut out at an altitude too low to eject from and how he managed to run through all the engine re-start procedures while the plane was dropping X hundred feet a second, toward a populated area. Bottom line: he ejected anyway, somehow survived—and had the presence of mind while still in the cockpit to trim the plane up so sweetly that it crashed intact and didn’t even catch on fire. I asked him, “How the hell did you do that?” He said, “That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?”

When we panic creatively, a lot of times we don’t even know it. There’s no smoke in the cockpit; the wings aren’t shaking like they’re about to fall off. We’ve numbed ourselves so much that we don’t even know we’re panicking. We simply don’t go to the gym or the rehearsal studio, or we don’t do our three pages, or we back off from that phone call that we know we have to make.

I asked this great pilot if he thought self-command could be taught. Can you train airmen to be cool under pressure? “I don’t know what the answer is,” he said, “but I will tell you this: there are flyers who are no longer with us, and the reason is not lack of skill or training but simply that they lost their heads.”

My own answer is this: I think composure can be learned. In fact I think the famous 10,000-hour rule is about that, much more than it’s about acquiring skill or expertise. What we learn as artists or entrepreneurs during those 10,000 hours of trying and failing is how to keep our heads when Resistance is flaring up like a jet-engine flameout.

In the old days of LSD, there was a warning that veteran trippers used to give to rookies. “No matter what you find yourself seeing or feeling,” they would say, “remember, it’s only the chemicals.” What these salty old hippies were saying was: it’s not you, it’s only a substance that you’ve voluntarily ingested. The effects of that substance will wear off, so don’t panic. Your hand is not really on fire. The refrigerator is not really reading your thoughts.

This is a key distinction—and one of the primary differences between an amateur and a professional. The amateur (i.e., me blundering around Tel Aviv or getting stuck for twenty minutes in a parking garage) identifies his momentary panic with himself; he internalizes it, blames himself, and loses his composure, making an uncomfortable situation far worse than it needs to be. The professional (i.e., this famous aviator in his Mirage fighter plane with the engine flaming out) does NOT identify with the fear he’s feeling; he focuses instead on the problem—and solves it.

In the creative arena, I’m as good as he is. I’ve learned over 40,000 hours (probably more) that there’s really nothing to be frightened of, even in the most excruciating creative crises, and that a steady application of will and patience (and a little trust in the Muse) will pull me out of my nosedive. That doesn’t mean I don’t go into tailspins. I do. It doesn’t mean engines don’t blow up on me. They do.

So here I am, in Steep Learning Curve Land. I have promised myself, however, that I will view my next panic attack as an opportunity to learn. I will not identify with my fear, but focus on the problem instead, and if I screw up, so be it. I will call the experience one small step for a man (or something like that) and keep trying.

Comfort zones do widen. What scared us on Tuesday becomes old hat by Friday. Composure can be learned. I’ll remind myself of that, tomorrow at Minute Nineteen, when I’m still trying to find my way out of the parking garage.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

23 Responses to “Out of My Comfort Zone”

  1. Todd Henry
    November 2, 2011 at 4:39 am

    Wonderfully profound words, Steven. I love the observation that creative panic rarely means smoke in the cockpit, but instead is more like surrender and avoidance. Much to think on here.

  2. November 2, 2011 at 6:29 am

    Hoped you enjoyed England and Israel. I think that composure can be taught, but not everyone can learn it. Fighter pilots are not regular people, you know that.

    By the way, how is Mr. Ronen :)

  3. Ivan
    November 2, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Yo, be sure to wear protective clothing, use insect repellant, sleep with bed nets.
    Hurry home. We miss you. You’re a giant.

  4. November 2, 2011 at 7:21 am

    I do so love Writing Wednesdays. And I love writing on every other day of the week. Israel and Britain (spent most of my time in Scotland) are two of my favorite places, though I’ve only been to each once, some thirty years apart.

    As to the comfort zone-panic theme, what’s to add? I’ve I’ve talked to chess grandmasters and professional football players, and they describe the same phenomenon.

    So Creative Panic can widen a Comfort Zone, or diminish it, depending on how we respond. Sort of like a bad loss (chess, sports). Or a draft that doesn’t work or a character who gets out of hand.

    The key is in the middle of the column: The professional does NOT identify with the fear he’s feeling; he focuses instead on the problem—and solves it.

    Identity – work – resistance. Haven’t we encountered them before?

    (I’d love to talk about Israel with you!)

  5. November 2, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Great post again, Mr. Pressfield!

    Reminds me of the time Hil & I were driving in Sicily and the lack of clear signage and being jet lagged nearly made me drive off a road that suddenly terminated into work pit. I think lost it more there than I had since when I was 10 and my dog died.

    But having put in many hours in writing (although no where as many as you) has also taught me that when my writing engine flames out, “this too will pass”. I’ve learned not to eject, but just remain persistent and — even though what I’m writing at the moment sucks to high heaven (or low hell) — keep going through restart procedures and I’ll get the engine fired up again. I may be covered in smoke, oil and hydraulic fluids and have to use some bubble gum to hold it together, but in the end I’m still flying.

    I try to convey that to my writing students so they don’t panic, but I think everyone has to get stuck in a garage at least once.

    But please … no more Sicilian highways under constuction!!

  6. November 2, 2011 at 10:42 am

    As usual, great words. Just dealing with confrontation at work today. This reminds me when someone I’m dealing with puffs up their chest and gets ready to react, that I should use that moment, not to prepare a defense, but to compose myself, smile, then give my retort. That ole’ “count to 10″ thing works every time, even if you are X-thousand feet in the air, trying to restart your engines before you crash. Nice write today. Thanks!

  7. November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Is this ever timely. Thanks for the reminder! And remember, today’s panic is fodder in SOMEWAY for tomorrow’s scene. ;D

  8. Joshua
    November 2, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Before reading this post today, I had a quote running through my head. I don’t remember the source, but the quote goes like this “Nothing interesting happens in the comfort zone.”

    Great post!

  9. November 2, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    This is such a wonderful post. Thank you. (I’m actually going to reread The War of Art now, because I’ve been giving into Resistance because I’m not even aware it’s there anymore. That’s the trickiest part of it, isn’t it?)

    “We’ve numbed ourselves so much that we don’t even know we’re panicking. We simply don’t go to the gym or the rehearsal studio, or we don’t do our three pages, or we back off from that phone call that we know we have to make.”

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    I’ve been realizing lately that I’ve been numbed out to my fear. That I’ve been scared, numbing myself, then numbing myself more because I feel bad about not doing anything. What!

    From alesserphotographer.tumblr.com : “Comfort is the enemy of art.”

  10. November 2, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Would it help you any to know I’ve been there, done that? And I’m betting I’m not the only one. Lost? Scared? Blaming myself for stupidity? Hell, yeah!

    But when you get back home, you’ll realize how much you learned from being outside your comfort zone. When I think back, I realize my biggest learning experiences were spent outside ye olde comfort zone.

    Would I go there again? I always think absolutely not. Not willingly, but I do. Constantly.

    Okay, so, maybe I’m not too bright, but my zone keeps inching its way toward enlargement. Yours will too.

    And, think about it. You’ll know how to get out of that maze of a parking garage next time.

  11. November 2, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Hi there Captain!

    It has been a long time. I really enjoy reading your posts. This reminds me of my time with a few friends who are NAVY SEALs. These guys are all Pro. They only focus on the problem and then the solution. It would be nice to catch up with you upon your return stateside.

    Be well,
    Hugh

  12. Sonja Eaton
    November 2, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    I love the LSD reference. Your writing is fantastic! Thank you for this.

  13. Francis
    November 3, 2011 at 4:44 am

    Well outlined, particularly the description of how an amateur reacts (I’m so stupid, etc). This will help me assist my son when he melts down over math homework. If I can only get him to pull back objectively and work through the problems………Safe travels.

  14. Tina
    November 3, 2011 at 7:17 am

    Guru and Sheperd — that is what you are — the writing is the medium!

  15. daniel-nyc
    November 3, 2011 at 8:38 am

    I read an interview with David Allen awhile back, and he talked about “work the problem” — I think about that all the time. Work the problem. Thanks for the post Steven, and safe travels!

  16. JUNE INUZUKA
    November 4, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Steven: New fan. Love this column. Always enlightened and encouraged by what you have to say. You’ve made a BIG difference in my writing habits and the courage it takes to write. Thanks again.

  17. RIP
    November 4, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Steven,

    It’s always a pleasure to read what you write.

    -RIP

  18. Tim
    November 6, 2011 at 6:28 am

    I constantly run across people who think they can read a book or take a class and become an expert in something. In my fighter pilot days – 1980′/F-16 – we repeated procedures over and over again until they became second nature. On the day when the engine did quit in the jet I was flying, the procedures happened automatically and I was able to use my reason to analyze the situation and take the proper action – not figure out what to do with a $25 million glider.

  19. November 8, 2011 at 3:40 am

    I just participated in an event called 24 Hour Plays for this very reason: to confront the creativity crisis head on, work through it (in a ridiculously short amount of time), and toss the work in front of a paying audience at the end of the day.

    And I’m still alive. Doing that, I realize what seems scary really brings a wonderful payoff. Everything else seems moot in comparison.

    It’s fun to tackle that creative panic.

  20. November 8, 2011 at 10:40 am

    “When we panic creatively, a lot of times we don’t even know it.” I love this and totally agree. Some call it OPEN FOCUS… meaning we see with every part of our being (not just our THINKING brain). Meditation can help us dial down the distracting noise in our minds but so can a crisis—the most likely time for even the least mindful of us to get the meaning of “one-pointed.”

    Thanks for your perspective and the reminder to cultivate organic creativity…the kind that co-arises with whatever comes up asking for our imperfectly skillful attention.

  21. November 8, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    I needed this tonight. Resistance was beating me and I was about to give up. I came to your site for some inspiration and found exactly what I needed to hear. And now, I’m 1000 words down and feeling victorious. Thank you Steven!

  22. December 3, 2011 at 7:03 am

    better resolution.