Comfort Zone

That's it, I quit. I am sick of living on the edge, always on the brink of failure. From now on, I'm only going to do things that I feel comfortable doing. Chicken of me, I know. But I just can't take it anymore, constantly judging myself inadequate, constantly looking over my shoulder at what I might be when I'm not. I'm a failure, fine. But I'm going to be a happy failure.

I used to be pretty good at things, back in the day. I always finished my homework on time; I knew how to study for tests and make near perfect grades; I was a good student, really. And that wasn't all. I could swim and play the piano and read books and draw and bake cookies and arrange furniture and navigate for anyone who was driving. I felt, if not brilliant, at least competent, secure in the belief that given the opportunity, I would know what to do. But it's been a long time since I've felt that way, and I'm tired of it.

I'm not really sure when it happened. You'd think growing up would make one more, not less secure. Look at all of the things that I can do now that I couldn't when I was, oh, thirteen: drive, for one; write a syllabus; give a more or less stimulating lecture; read French, even if I can't speak it; publish an article or two; occasionally get a good touch against my opponents. But have you noticed how even in making this list, I don't really believe it? Everything feels conditional, nothing that I can actually be sure of. No wonder I never feel myself in the zone.

Ah, the magical zone! I've been fretting over its existence for years, ever since, when I was working on my dissertation, I happened to read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Happiness (1992). Here are its characteristics (p. 49):
First, the experience [of happiness, absorption, flow] usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.

Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.

Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.

Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.

Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.

Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.

Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.

The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.
I can't tell you the last time that I felt that good about doing anything. Okay, I lie. There were moments--moments, mind you--at Summer Nationals when I sensed that it might just be possible (oh, the dopamine hit from the striatum), but they were almost always fairly rapidly shattered. Occasionally, I look at the home that my family and I have made and can see all the work that went into it, but it's still far from perfect, arguably well-arranged, but nothing like as well-decorated as others' homes I have seen. I wish that I could feel confident in my writing, but again, I'm not really sure how good I am at it, compelled though I seem to be to keep doing it. The altar bread I made the other evening was pretty good, but nothing on the fantastic cookies and brownies and cakes my friend Badger makes. Forget the drawing and piano; I haven't practiced for years, and even if I did, I could never draw as well as I wanted to or play anything other than the most mechanical pieces.

I know, I know, my goals are too high. (See condition #1 for happiness.) I used to feel I was pretty good at certain things "for my age," but I'm old enough now, have been for decades, that that really isn't much consolation any more. So what should my goals be? "To improve." Fine. Even that backfires more or less predictably. Maybe my writing has improved over the past few years, maybe not. I really can't tell anymore. My son (wise young man that he is) would say that this is an illusion: "In order to impress your past self [the self to whom you were writing before], your present self has to improve a great deal. Your most recent self [i.e. the self who has been writing these past few months] will always seem more flawed because you are still too close to it." (Yes, he really said more or less exactly these words; pretty good for thirteen, eh?) So much for clear feedback. Now what do I do?

Jim Collins suggests that the secret to happiness as well as success lies in doing the things that you are deeply passionate about and that you feel "just made to do" (provided, of course, that they make economic sense). Oh, if only it were so easy. Wouldn't that be nice? To stop trying so hard to master skills I simply don't--and may never--have, and to do instead the things that I simply enjoy doing, that make me happy? Okay, so that's not exactly what Csikszentmihalyi suggests. Flow does not typically occur when we are doing things that we find particularly easy, but nor does it occur when we are doing something that is too hard. The trick is to find the balance between challenge and skill, with the paradox that as our skills increase, so must the difficulty of the challenge, otherwise from being anxious we will become bored.

I can't say that I spend all that much time being bored--practically none, in fact--but I do know that I am more or less perpetually anxious. Wishing that I actually wrote well enough to publish a book that might sell more than a handful of copies. Wishing that I actually fenced as well as others who have been fencing for as long as I have. Wishing that I could feel something when I pray (or pretend to pray) other than yet more frustration about whether anybody is listening. Wishing that I knew what I was supposed to be doing with my life and whether I have made the right decisions given what it is that I seem "made to do." Surely, if I were "made to do" what I am doing now, I would get more pleasure from it. I wouldn't care about what anybody else thinks or how many books I sell. (Although see Collins' condition #3.)

Mind you, now I'm sounding like the woman who is always searching for Mr. Right and can't ever find him. Sometimes--perhaps most of the time--what's "right" is simply what we're doing now. So maybe I was "supposed" to have a career as a bioengineer or a graphic designer (as one Facebook personality test told me); but what I am is a medieval historian. Maybe not a very good one, maybe not as good as I should be, maybe not as good as I imagine I might be if only I worked harder. And maybe (more likely, most probably) I'll never be as good a fencer as I'd like to be, but does that really mean I shouldn't fence at all? Another thing that Collins suggests is to minimize one's goals so as to be more disciplined in what one actually pursues.

This is the way Hugh of St. Victor put it so many centuries ago: "Don't pursue infinity! Where no end is in sight, there can be no rest. Where there is no rest, there is no peace. Where there is no peace, God cannot dwell." Hugh was warning his readers--academics take note!--against trying to read everything; even in the twelfth century, it was already impossible: "Leave well enough alone," he advised. "It is nothing to you whether you read all the books there are or not. The number of books is infinite.... Give ear to Solomon, give ear to the Wise Man and learn prudence. 'My son,' he says, 'more than these require not. Of making many books there is no end: and much study is an affliction of the flesh' (Ecclesiastes 12:12)."* And you wonder why taking a course with a prearranged syllabus (as I've said, I am good at writing those) is so much more comforting than, for example, "being current in one's field"--which, almost by definition, one can never be.

I want to be comfortable and happy, not stressed out and convinced that I am a failure because I have not reached my highest goals. But now that I've caught sight of them as goals--making top 8 in a Veteran Women's Foil event, writing a book worthy of the fellowship that I have received--I don't know what to do other than keep trying. And yet, it is almost guaranteed that I will not, under these conditions, succeed. So much for the zone, eh?

*Didascalicon, book 5, chapter 7, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, 1991), p. 130.**
**Ironically enough, I notice that I quoted this same passage almost exactly a year ago when I was trying to reassure myself that being narrow was a good thing. Perhaps what I'm feeling is the summertime version of SAD.


  1. Bear--I have a very wise and perceptive friend who commented to me once "you only do what you are good at." Not "you are good at everything you do" mind you. Note the difference. I think it is very brave to assay things at least a little bit beyond your reach. How far beyond--that is a judgement best left to you. Certainly chronic frustration and unhappiness is not healthy. Neither is complacency. So, what is your plan--change your areas of endeavor, or modify your expectations in your chosen fields? Either way, I hope you pick something that you can attain, with effort, using your considerable talents.

  2. Wise words. You've helped me see that what I'm struggling with here is my perfectionism as much as it is my desire for success, so the answer is not necessarily finding something I'm actually good at or can do with the relatively good chance of experiencing flow. Rather, it is embracing the imperfect even as I strive for the perfect. My sister has a saying along these lines: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Which may be translated: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."


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