Hammertime Day 5: Comfort Zone Expansion

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This is part 5 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

It would be hypocritical of me to write a post of my usual form to teach Comfort Zone Expansion. Instead, I’ll explain why the Disney song How Far I’ll Go is a triumphant call to exploration, and leave a short CoZE exercise that you should modify with the principles of Moana in mind.


Comfort Zone Expansion (ironically named CoZE) is CFAR’s version of exposure therapy, designed to get people to try new things cautiously. When I first heard of CoZE, what came to mind was something like run naked into a crowded Starbucks and ask strangers to finger-paint my buttcheeks. Although there might be some value to such an exercise, CoZE is decidedly not that. The first step of CoZE is simply trying things you’ve never bothered to try, even though you have no resistance to them.

Let me call attention to some metaphors for talking about Comfort Zones.

Order and Chaos

One way to visualize your comfort zone as the dividing line between Order and Chaos.

Order is the known. Order is your social circle, the interior of your home, the streets you drive regularly. Order is the programming languages you’re familiar with, the sports you play, the languages you speak. Order is the rules you follow. Order is your comfort zone.

Chaos is the unknown – or worse the unknown unknown. Chaos is staring momentarily into a stranger’s eyes. Chaos is the antsy feeling you get turning just one street away from your usual route. Chaos is the feeling that the world has shifted beneath your feet when you break your code, when you find out you’ve been lied to, when you notice you’re deep into a mistake. Chaos is the amorphous shadow that expands gas-like to fill every space you don’t pay attention to.

Yang and Yin are Order and Chaos, and the Yin-Yang is the Daoist reminder that the proper Way through life is to navigate the twisting line between Order and Chaos.

For a more CS-friendly metaphor, consider staying within Order as Exploiting well-understood strategies and going into Chaos as Exploring new strategies. Moloch is the civilizational disaster that occurs everyone decides to Exploit by sticking within their comfort zones. Except for very young children, people categorically Explore too little and stagnate in local optima.

The Structure of Pop Songs

Jordan Peterson had an illuminating dialogue with composer Samuel Andreyev about a year ago (transcription my own):

Andreyev: The pop song is an incredibly difficult medium to work within because – first of all it’s completely unforgiving, you’re working in an extremely compressed format, it’s very rare for the pop song to be longer than three minutes. You don’t have much room to maneuver. And you certainly don’t have any room to maneuver structurally, I mean you pretty much have to stick to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus thing in the immense majority of pop songs, there’s been very little variation of that since Rock really, since the Fifties.
Peterson: Where did that come from? I know the three minute length was a commercial imposition if I remember correctly. But that structure verse-chorus-verse-chorus out of what did that originate?
Andreyev: Well that’s an extremely old form. Well you certainly have Baroque forms that have an extremely similar form. You alternate one fixed element that keeps returning the same way essentially and a secondary element that gives you a certain degree of relief and contrast with the preceding element.
Peterson: So that’s a Chaos-Order interplay of sorts, that’s the way I would interpret it.

The verse-chorus-verse-chorus format of pop songs, then, is an alternation of Explore-Exploit as the song wends its way between Order and Chaos. The chorus is the primary, fixed element of Order that returns to tie the listener back to a central theme or narrative. The interspersed verses are exploratory elements that make brief forays into Chaos to provide relief from the monotony of the chorus.

This explains why other genres of music, less vernacular and more artistic, are less palatable to the public imagination. The avant-garde artist is the dedicated Explorer, constantly far into the lands of Chaos. Without a comforting refrain to return to, the music becomes all Chaos to the uninitiated and difficult to digest.


If you haven’t already, take a listen or ten to How Far I’ll Go. I personally prefer Alessia Cara’s rendition.

I’ve been staring at the edge of the water
’Long as I can remember, never really knowing why
I wish I could be the perfect daughter
But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try
Every turn I take, every trail I track
Every path I make, every road leads back
To the place I know, where I can not go, where I long to be
See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me
And no one knows, how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know, if I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go
I know everybody on this island, seems so happy on this island
Everything is by design
I know everybody on this island has a role on this island
So maybe I can roll with mine
I can lead with pride, I can make us strong
I’ll be satisfied if I play along
But the voice inside sings a different song
What is wrong with me?
See the light as it shines on the sea? It’s blinding
But no one knows, how deep it goes
And it seems like it’s calling out to me, so come find me
And let me know, what’s beyond that line, will I cross that line?
The line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me
And no one knows, how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know, how far I’ll go

Home to deep-dwellers and Lovecraftian horrors, the ocean has always been symbolic of Chaos. Moana teaches us three important methods of venturing into Chaos, all of which should be combined for maximum effect.

1. The Edge of the Water

The edge of the water is the line between Order and Chaos, constantly shifting with the lapping waves and the tidal cycle. The simplest method of CoZE is to stare the edge of the water and dip your toes in. That’s what today’s exercise is about. Everyone has a boundary they’re drawn to inevitably, never really knowing why. The trick is to notice that boundary.

Every turn, trail, path, and road leads back to the edge of the water. Finding it is as simple as listening for the quiet yet shrill notes of resistance that stop you in your tracks in everyday life. The errand you put off for another hour. The acquaintance you almost wave hi to. The question you almost ask. The conversation topic clinging desperately to the tip of your tongue as you try to launch it. The class or club you almost sign up for.

Life leads you back to the edge of the water no matter how hard you fight it. You’ve been staring at it for as long as you can remember. All you have to do is notice.

2. Where the Sky Meets the Sea

Staring at the very boundary between Order and Chaos may be useful for finding your resistances, but it’s hardly a triumphant call to action. Moana reminds us to look up, every so often, at the line where the sky meets the sea. The sky is the Kingdom of Heaven, and it can only be reached by sailing farther out of your comfort zone than anyone has ever been.

There’s an array of visual metaphors for successful, interesting people. They seem to be filled to the brim with the light of life. The light shines through them. They walk in the light of God. The second method of CoZE is to raise your eyes momentarily to meet that blinding light on the sea that marks your transcendent dream.

See the people you admire who shine and sparkle with the light. Construct the ideal human being in your mind’s eye. Then, you will know what you’re missing lies beyond the edge of your comfort zone. Let that transcendent dream be the wind at your back on the open sea.

3. Everybody on this Island

Why is Moana the only person on the island who yearns for the ocean? Is it because others are too afraid of their resistances, or cannot see the light on the horizon?

Actually, the reason Moana wants to leave is that she’s already at the top of the dominance hierarchy on her island. She’s the daughter of the chief, and she’s destined to lead and been trained for it since childhood. Listen to her voice when she sings: “I can lead with pride, I can make us strong, I’ll be satisfied if I play along.” There’s not a single note of worry or insecurity. Unlike everyone else on the island, the only way for Moana to grow is to leap out into Chaos.

This leads to the counter-intuitive third method of CoZE: expand the boundary of your comfort zone by securing the center.

Fortify and build trust within your relationships. Study and perfect your craft. Use Design principles to create a sanctuary to return to. Climb to the top of your current hierarchy. Once the center is secure, there will be nothing left for you here. Your natural inner voice will take you back on the open sea.

Day 5: CoZE

For the first cycle of CoZE, we will spend about half an hour trying new things.

WARNING: Don’t pick anything you feel significant resistance to. The goal is simply to become the kind of person who automatically tries new things if they’re nonthreatening.

Step 1. Set a Yoda Timer for five minutes. Brainstorm as many things you haven’t done as you can. They can be as simple as: listen to songs in different languages, walk down a street you haven’t been down before, try to do a handstand against the wall, shout as loud as you can, run a mile, have a conversation without smiling, write a haiku.

Step 2. Set a Yoda Timer for TWENTY minutes. Hit as many of the things on your list as you can.

Daily Challenge

Share a story about finding something shiny by exploring past your comfort zone.