My View from South Hill
Monday, May 3, 2010
One of the most common but nonetheless valuable messages we give our students is: “Get out of your comfort zone.” It is especially important for new students to hear this, because the only way to fully take advantage of an Ithaca College education is to sample the enormous breadth of experiences that are available. There are a wide variety of courses to be taken, student clubs and activities to get involved in, friends to meet, perspectives to encounter. The college years are a period of remarkable growth for most young adults, and time spent out of one’s comfort zone is a significant factor in producing that growth.
If it is good for our students to get out of their comfort zones, then it is surely good for the rest of us to do so as well. Speaking for myself, I have tended to assume, a bit smugly, that I get out of my comfort zone on a routine basis. After all, I am fortunate enough to have a job in which no two days are the same, and most days bring at least one unprecedented challenge, problem or activity. Heck, I became a first time father last year in my mid-fifties – how’s that for shaking things up?
But, if we are honest about it, we must recognize that it is not so easy to get out of your comfort zone when you are older. With greater experience in life, even new challenges can be tackled based on one’s existing body of skills and memories. Our comfort zones get wider as time goes on. That is a major benefit of growing older, but it also reduces our ability to experience the growth opportunities that come from trying something genuinely new and perhaps even scary.
I know this because yesterday I went very far out of my comfort zone. I served as the narrator of Abraham Lincoln’s words during a performance by the Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. In accepting this invitation to read, I did not fully realize how delicate the timing of the words to the music would be: speak a phrase in perfect time to the violins and cellos, the oboes and clarinets, the trumpets and the tubas. Pause for a clash of cymbals. Begin the next phrase in sync with the flutes. Finish just before the final crescendo. Mess up that timing, and the incredibly precise work of the IC Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Jeff Meyer would be diminished.
I can read music in the very basic sense of being able – more or less – to blend in with the congregation on a church hymn that I haven’t heard before. But reading a symphonic score with this level of facility and precision is way over my head. The only thing that would have been further out of my comfort zone would have been to sing Lincoln’s words instead of narrating them. That would have put everyone out of their comfort zones!
So what did I learn from this experience?
- I was reminded of what it is like to know you are committed to doing something, but to be entirely unsure whether you will be able do it without falling on your face. It was nerve wracking, but also a really good, humbling experience to have.
- Getting lots of practice would have been a logical response to being in this situation. But I was so nervous about the performance that practicing made me nervous too. Being out of my comfort zone brought out my inner procrastinator. It is much easier to practice things you are already good at.
- Sitting within four feet of the conductor on the stage during a performance is an astounding experience. The movements of the conductor – seemingly so languid when viewed from the back of the hall – are in fact athletic and even aggressive. The podium shook slightly as Jeff Meyer let us know what he wanted. The music itself has a vibrancy and a differentiation of instrumentation from that spot on the stage that I do not remember hearing from the audience. I will never again attend a concert in quite the same way as I did prior to this experience.
- In the end, I was not as fully in sync with the orchestra as I should have been. And yet, I have the satisfaction of having attempted something that was difficult for me, of having worked at it for a few weeks (albeit less than I should have), and of having done much better than I feared I might. Applause earned for that effort was somehow sweeter than applause earned for activities in which I am experienced and in which I perform much better.
Above all, I learned that it is easier to tell others to get out of their comfort zone than it is to do so yourself. When the class of 2014 arrives on campus in just a few months, I will (as I always do) urge them to maximize their experience by getting out of their comfort zones. But I will do so with the humility of a fellow learner, and with a much greater understanding of the magnitude of what I am asking. I will also have a deeper appreciation for the ability of our students to incorporate new experiences into their daily lives, and to learn from them.
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