I’ve had a bullseye on my head since my first trip to China in 2012. My six weeks in Henan Province began with a lengthy lecture from the State Department on security threats and how I, as a government employee, was a prime target. But the bullseye on my head isn’t from being on an international Most Wanted list; it’s the imprint of the lessons I learned about risk and change during the trip.
Off the beaten track of Western tourism, the other-ness isolated me into a bubble of silence – I couldn’t understand words nor read signs or body language. The State Department lecture made me feel like my person missteps could be a matter of national security, so I was paralyzed by both cultural ignorance and worry. The isolation and disorientation I felt could only equate to waking up suddenly blind or deaf.
Upon arriving in the country, everything required a surrender of privacy. Our hosts tended to us from daybreak to sunset. Logging on to the internet required a passport number. Moving into our on-campus apartment required registering with campus police. Our independent American selves had full intentions of self-sufficiency but instead we found ourselves being fed hand to mouth by our hosts – sometime literally. They took care of all our meals. They picked our groceries in stores because we could only read packaging of Western food like Snickers and Lays potato chips. They set up our internet, fixed our plumbing so we had drinking water, and read the bus maps for us. While we had prepared ourselves to keep boundaries between ourselves and our hosts for all these security threat reasons, we depended on them for everything, especially since we were only there for a discreet amount of time and we had work to do. Bumbling through getting daily needs met would have taken all our time.
Once we had pots and pans and groceries and a daily schedule, we took a few days to rest. We drank neon-colored wine coolers in the solitude of our grubby apartment and re-lived the chaos of our days during our dreams, collapsing for 13 hours of sleep each night to recover from culture shock and jet lag.
The increasing radius of daily adventures marked our gain in courage, starting with the inner circle around our apartment: a 15 minute run around the campus pond, then a 30 minute run around the perimeter of the camps, then a 45 minute run with a quick exit of campus’ West Gate. Meals marked the next step to the mid-range circle: going to the campus cafeteria to muddle through food selection and payment; walking to the nearby market to buy some sweet potato chips and bananas; and finally visiting the line of outdoor restaurants and stumbling through menus, communicating with waitresses and seeing the locals laugh when a meal three times larger than what we needed arrived.
I have never been so microscopically aware of the incremental steps of risk taking. I moved a little farther from my apartment each day. I moved a little further from my American habits each day, testing the language, the bus system, the bargaining culture in the market.
Part of what struck me is how I and my travel companions moved outward through a geographic bullseye, methodically expanding our comfort zone was: from apartment to the university campus to the surrounding neighborhoods and markets. What if I could approach all my life’s challenges with the same, methodical steps towards risk and the expansion of comfort?
Because of China, I can see challenge through a different lens.
Because of this trip to China, I now view life through this bullseye lens – with perfect comfort at the center and utter discomfort on the outside circle. I use this view to plot my next steps that expand comfort zone – and my horizons.
They say moving is among the top three stressors in life next to change in marital status and losing a job. When I moved to Wyoming, it wasn’t “in my life plan.” I left a job at Grand Canyon I thought would be mine for the next 20 years. I knew all the quirky stories and compelling science of the park. The red rock landscape was fully circulating in me; I’d literally been drinking from a spring in Grand Canyon for seven years.
I was a “go to” at work, had a surrogate family and a man who I was going to marry. And then I didn’t and I wasn’t.
I arrived in Wyoming, moved into a house that didn’t feel like mine, looked out at a park I knew nothing about and met co-workers who didn’t know I was a “go to” kind of person. And I set to work on my targets. I nested in my home. I explored the trails the curled into the mountains just outside my home. I highlighted each new trail hiked and watched the veins of yellow bleed across my map. I found my favorite coffee shop where I could sit alone and be comfortable by myself. I got to know my direct reports and immediate coworkers; then colleagues in other departments. In the awful process of making friends in a new place, I focused on the ones who returned texts and phone calls and slowly expanded the social circle from there. I tested the online dating scene one app at a time. (That’s brutal no matter what part of the target you’re operating in.)
Making Wyoming home was not simple; despite my brilliant epiphany of bullseyes and comfort zones, change is still excruciating. But I didn’t get stuck.
It is so easy to paralyze ourselves when we are out of our element. Having a strategy to visualize change is can help us push through the ruts and the impossibilities.
Instead of beating myself up for getting stuck, I can ask,
“Did I try to jump straight from the inner circle of comfort to the outer circle?” Maybe there is a step in between.
If I ask, “Am I static?”
Maybe I’ve been swimming in the center of comfort for too long.
“Can I handle all this?”
Maybe I can influence the outcome.
I’m going to make it a game.
Jane McGonigal studies the benefits of gaming and sees evidence that gaming expands your creative problem solving. So, maybe we use the bullseye of comfort and compare it to darts. Reverse the scoring: instead of the center of comfort being 100 points, maybe the outer ring is 100 and the center worth only 10. What’s the next strategy going to be to increase your score and expand your comfort zone?
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child, listen to the don’ts
Listen to the wouldn’ts and the couldn’ts and the won’ts
Listen to the never haves then listen close to me,
Anything can happen, child, anything can be.”