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.

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39 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I saw a railing today. I decided to try balancing on it. Ended up spending 20 minutes walking, falling, getting back on, repeat. It was whimsical, not something I'd planned to do, and fun.

Balancing on various things always reminds me how amazing the human body is. Ripstiks have been an endless source of fun and continue to surprise my System 1 (how does that thing move forward?).

Today, I was jogging around my neighborhood  while  adjusted my vision about 5-10 angle degrees higher than usual (no pedestrians or moving vehicles around). Felt like I was wandering in a unfamiliar ground, that made me wonder the amount of details/information that, sadly, simply escapes my attention in everyday basis.

A small, yet powerful reminder that I easily forget. Thank you for your articles!

While brainstorming I came up with a list with items like "learn Japanese", "make a game in Unity", etc., but I realized that these probably aren't outside of my comfort zone. I really want to do those things, I just haven't yet. Commenting here, writing lyrics, or watching horror movies, on the other hand, are definitely things that are outside of my comfort zone. I get a slightly nervous feeling when I think about them.

So I tried to redirect and focus more on things that brought out that feeling. I noticed a common class of them were about expressing myself emotionally in front of others. This felt like a useful feeling to finally put into words.

There's a whole web of unwritten rules and many doors that I keep closed, I just wish I could think of more banal/prosaic things to expand into. Like what day-to-day power-ups do I not allow myself to use? What obvious or fundamental skills am I missing because I'm focusing on the "impressive" stuff? I hope to explore this more in the other CoZE days.

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

  • My girlfriend egged me on to audition for an indie band I liked in college. That is definitely not something I was comfortable with - even just reaching out to someone I didn't know scared (and still scares) me. But I auditioned and got the part. I didn't even think ahead - this now meant I had to play shows. In front of people. YIKES.
  • For the past 3 years, every single show was a CoZE. The first few were pure terror. Thankfully they were very small at first. Eventually the shows got much bigger - we were about to play our biggest show yet before Covid hit.
  • I still get scared before every show but I've gotten through it every time. My bandmates are my best friends and I've had some of the best experiences in my life from this. Younger me would be proud.

Tried sketching out a comic. Realized the doodling I've done forever is now so natural to my hand I can draw out a cartoonish little character in a VERY short amount of time. Might be worth trying to actual make a few.

I've finally commented on LessWrong (after lurking for the last few years) which had been on the edge of my comfort zone. Thanks for exercise!


Oh, that's a great idea! me too!

Your reply encouraged me to write something, too. Especially, as you have written on quite an old comment and I personally see it like an audacity, made me realize much of my aversion comes from seeing commenting on old posts like "tinkering with years-old discussion that is practically archived in perfection (or is dead and unvisited)".

The upvotes on your reply make it evident that comment section on old posts is live (at least, is read), and I think maybe something like a counter of post reads, made in the last couple of months, would make it more encouraging to start new conversations.

I am glad that my reply acted as an encouragement for you. It reminds me of comradery in an act of defiance. Though for me I believe my "Defiance" was actually Naivete of a culture that I am still bright eyed and fresh faced to. Walking like a toddler, Bumbling around, knocking things over.

Why am I glad you made this point? Because it might point toward an unspoken rule.

"Thou shalt not comment on old posts, lest thou desires to be struck down! What has been said is done! NO MORE FUN!"

It seems this rule isn't imparted by the powers that be, but our own desire to stay unnoticed? 
I hope to keep this lack of respect for unspoken customs as I become more acquainted with less wrong.

Participation leads to learning so why not participate whenever you've got something to say. Worst case, the mods see it.

You're definitely encouraged to comment on old posts on LessWrong if you have something to say.

I had a great time trying new things tonight. I started my 20 minutes while out for a walk, and ended up doing jumping jacks in the middle of an empty parking lot, pausing by the highway just to watch the cars, and leaving a comment on a youtube video for the first time (after I got home), among other things. 

Is there a non-poetic explanation for why I’d want to Expand my Comfort Zone? I can’t quite see through all the metaphor to what the benefit is supposed to be…

I think the idea is based on a general assumption that status quo bias prevails and people are too afraid of low-stakes risks.

Edited to add an excerpt from the linked paper:

Little is known about whether people make good choices when facing important decisions. This paper reports on a large-scale randomized field experiment in which research subjects having difficulty making a decision flipped a coin to help determine their choice. For important decisions (e.g. quitting a job or ending a relationship), those who make a change (regardless of the outcome of the coin toss) report being substantially happier two months and six months later. This correlation, however, need not reflect a causal impact. To assess causality, I use the outcome of a coin toss. Individuals who are told by the coin toss to make a change are much more likely to make a change and are happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo. The results of this paper suggest that people may be excessively cautious when facing life-changing choices.

There would be no point in advising someone to exercise who already does, in giving nutritional advice to someone who already eats well, in urging elementary mathematics on someone with a Ph.D. in the subject. Whether any of the CoZE exercises would be useful to someone depends on where they already are in relation to what the exercises deal with. I don't know you; you'll have to judge that yourself. (I do like seeing your perspective on the neurobabble and psychobabble that often gets posted here, btw.)

CoZE is about the trade-off between exploitation and exploration. What proportion of your resources do you devote to finding new opportunities for whatever you want from life, and what proportion to using the opportunities you have found? Some people do too little exploration and remain stuck in their rut, taking a path of least resistance and perhaps missing out on greater things. Others do too little exploitation and never direct themselves to one thing long enough to achieve great things. There is no optimum balance. Some of the most fascinating biographies are of people who spent their whole life exploring. I can't say I'd want to be them, but neither would I say they had misspent their life. At the opposite extreme are people like Erdös. I wouldn't want to be him either, but the world is better for having had him in it.

CoZE exercises teach exploration. They are directed at people who may be doing too little exploration, especially if that arises from excessive anxiety about what might happen if they step outside of their accustomed routine.

Thanks, that’s definitely helpful! Some follow-up questions:

There is no optimum balance.

But there is, presumably, at least an optimum region on the spectrum, right? (Otherwise it would not make sense to describe someone as doing “too little” of either exploration or exploitation.)

Whether any of the CoZE exercises would be useful to someone depends on where they already are in relation to what the exercises deal with. I don’t know you; you’ll have to judge that yourself.

Well, that’s actually the trouble: I do know me, and yet I’m still not sure how I’d judge where I am in relation to what the exercises deal with!

Do you have any examples of the kind of “exploration” you have in mind? I’m still not sure I have a good idea of how the concept of “don’t get stuck in a rut in your life” connects to the CoZE stuff, and some examples might help.


CoZE exercises teach exploration. They are directed at people who may be doing too little exploration, especially if that arises from excessive anxiety about what might happen if they step outside of their accustomed routine.

This bit in particular helps explain things, yes.

In saying there is no optimum balance I only meant that there isn't a single optimum for everyone. Each person may very well have an optimum region, although even that can change from time to time and from one area to another of their life. Consider various prominent people (Steve Jobs, Barack Obama) who decided to dress the same way every day to remove a minor decision and concentrate on the things that really matter to them.

I've never done any of the CoZE stuff under that brand name, although I have in the past done that sort of thing. I can't say that my comfort zone was ever expanded, though. The result was more "well, that was interesting, but I have no reason to do it again." When that's the only learning from a learning experience, it hardly seems worth it.

You're a reinforcement learner, and reinforcement learners work by exploring the possible states they can be in and the possible actions they can take to get information about what's good to do. Many people err on the side of exploring too little for various reasons (for example, fear of being judged socially), and so don't have anywhere near as much information in their System 1s as they could about what actions are good to take.

More concretely, suppose you're afraid of talking to strangers. You may never have tried talking to strangers in your life, so your fear may not be based on any actual bad experiences of talking to strangers, just some vague sense that could come from a lot of different sources that it's not the sort of thing you're allowed to do. But if you keep not doing it then you keep not acquiring information about whether it's good to do. So trying it is an opportunity to find out how well-calibrated your fear is.

The relatively technical term used to discuss this sort of issue in the RL literature is exploration vs. exploitation, or the explore-exploit tradeoff, etc. The standard toy model is the multi-armed bandit.

You’re a reinforcement learner, and reinforcement learners work by…

What exactly do you mean by this?

If you’re referring to some sort of “implementation details” of human cognition, then… those may be interesting, but it seems like this is an exceedingly “low level” at which to talk about the costs and benefits of intentional action. At the very least, it calls for supporting citations (which would establish that these “implementation details”-level claims translate to concrete higher-level effects).

If, on the other hand, this is some sort of metaphor (using the structure and behavior of one formal system or another as analogy for how actual human minds work), then could you explain what the non-metaphorical meaning is?

More concretely, suppose you’re afraid of talking to strangers. …

Then is CoZE meant as a sort of therapy aimed at overcoming specific phobias?

I’ve made comments that were more overtly skeptical, even a bit confrontational, and they were upvoted, while this is downvoted to −10. What gives? I thought I was asking some pretty straightforward and honest questions here…

(In addition to Qiaochu's comment: also just noise. Your comments are generally divisive with a lot of upvotes and downvotes, and so if you are on a thread with less people, I expect that you will more often than others end up randomly with some negative karma scores)

Interesting. Is it possible to see this information (how many upvotes/downvotes, for how much, etc.)? (I seem to recall this being a feature of the old Less Wrong.) I, for one, would find it quite useful!

Personally, I'm incredibly confused about what the comment reveals about what it's like to be you. Your questions just feel to me like they're coming from a completely different place from my experience, and it's hard not to have an initial sense that you must be trolling.

I think humans are reinforcement learners in a very strong sense, much stronger than just a metaphor; it's basically the best gears model I know of what humans (also non-human animals) are like. The history of this idea starts with classical conditioning and operant conditioning and in its modern form can get very sophisticated, for example with the modern understanding of dopamine as reward prediction error.

But this is something you should be able to experience about yourself without needing to study the psychology or RL literature: have you ever tried a new food and found that you liked it a surprising amount and now you eat it all the time? That's reinforcement learning.

CoZE can be used as a therapy to overcome phobias but it's more general than that. There are things that you're not afraid to do, but that you just never do because it never occurs to you, and CoZE can give you exposure to those things in such a way that they might occur to you to do later.

Commenting on this bit separately:

CoZE can be used as a therapy to overcome phobias but it’s more general than that. There are things that you’re not afraid to do, but that you just never do because it never occurs to you, and CoZE can give you exposure to those things in such a way that they might occur to you to do later.

This seems to me to be an (indeed, the) interesting claim here, and is exactly what I’d like to see explored in some detail, in the treatment of CoZE that I should like to read. Indeed, an expansion of, and justification for, this claim, is precisely the sort of thing I was asking for in the first place.

Great, thanks, I think I understand your confusion better now (this was not at all apparent to me). There's a section of Stephan Guyenet's The Hungry Brain that you might be interested in reading; he talks about how the brain selects actions to take at a neurological level, and his explanation is very clear.

Thank you, I’ll check out Guyenet’s book.

Meanwhile, here’s a question: are Guyenet’s claims / models / etc. generally accepted in the field? That is—is this, basically, orthodoxy, or what?

Personally, I’m incredibly confused about what the comment reveals about what it’s like to be you. Your questions just feel to me like they’re coming from a completely different place from my experience, and it’s hard not to have an initial sense that you must be trolling.

I don’t think I’ve ever posted a comment, either here or on the original Less Wrong, that I’d describe as ‘trolling’, so for whatever my word is worth, you can be sure that that’s not my intent.

I don’t think there’s anything terribly unusual about what it’s like to be me. I, conversely, often have this sort of reaction when I read about the experiences of folks in the rationalist community (especially those from the Bay Area). Greater mutual understanding is one of our goals here, right?

[stuff about conditioning]

We’ve moved past behaviorism, though, haven’t we? Or is it now, again, the ‘in’ thing? I wasn’t aware of that; but then, I don’t keep up with all the latest developments in psychology. It’s a big field; and it seems strange to expect that all Less Wrong readers must be intimately familiar with the most current findings in neurobiology or what have you. (Perhaps a sequence of posts, describing (various aspects of) the current understanding of the mind, is in order?)

But this is something you should be able to experience about yourself without needing to study the psychology or RL literature: have you ever tried a new food and found that you liked it a surprising amount and now you eat it all the time? That’s reinforcement learning.

This seems like a strange thing to say, in exactly the way I meant in my earlier comment. Why say “that’s reinforcement learning”, when you could just as easily say “that’s you finding out that you liked something, and then acting on that newfound knowledge”—or, conversely, “that’s the action of the electromagnetic forces in the atoms of your body”? You wouldn’t say the latter, would you? But why not? Well, because it’s a rather uninformative, far too low-level, description; the interesting stuff, the stuff that has predictive value and that we can reason about, is taking place on the higher levels… and so with the “reinforcement learning” comment, which also seems to me to speak of “implementation details” that don’t tell me anything particularly interesting or specific. (I am, of course, entirely taking your word that it’s even an accurate description in the first place.)

(This is all not to mention the fact that your scenario is certainly not outside the bounds of my experience, but on the other hand neither are many adjacent but distinct scenarios, such as: (a) I try a new food, don’t much like it, but then keep eating it occasionally and develop a taste; (b) I try a new food, don’t much like it, but then some time later try it again and do like it, and then eat it occasionally; (c) I try a new food, like it a lot, but then don’t really eat it all that often; (d) I try a new food, like it a lot, eat it a lot, but then stop liking it, and stop eating it; (e) etc., etc. Are all of these things also “reinforcement learning”? If yes, then everything is “reinforcement learning” and the label is uninformative, much like “that’s EM fields among atoms”; if not, then saying that I “am a reinforcement learner” is clearly inaccurate, at best.)

Thanks for writing this. I think part of what's going on is that when I say "reinforcement learning" it connects to a lot of gears in my head (for example, Q-learning) and I think I've been typical minding on how much other people know about those gears. It would probably be well worth writing a top-level post on using reinforcement learning to understand human cognition and behavior broadly, but I'm not sure I want to commit to a project that looks so big.

Yes, all of those things could be an example of reinforcement learning, depending on contextual factors such as the extent to which the food contains nutrients you're deficient in, your history of experience with similar foods, your sense of how others around you would react to seeing you eat the food, etc. I'm aware that you'll find this an unsatisfying answer, but since humans do in fact exhibit a large and complicated array of behaviors (I hope we can agree on this at least) a theory into which it all comfortably fits needs to be flexible enough to produce such an array.

I think part of what’s going on is that when I say “reinforcement learning” it connects to a lot of gears in my head (for example, Q-learning) and I think I’ve been typical minding on how much other people know about those gears.

Indeed; e.g., I didn’t know what Q-learning is until now—in fact I still don’t know what it is (for precisely the reason noted in the banner at the top of the Wikipedia page).

It’s entirely understandable that you are reluctant to take on a project to explain the entirety of what seems to be a large and somewhat abstruse scientific subfield. That said, the takeaway is that most readers here have no good reason to share those of your views that have, as a prerequisite, understanding of said field. (Making our way toward having a good overview of reinforcement learning would seem to be a good community goal for Less Wrong.)

Yes, all of those things could be an example of reinforcement learning, depending on contextual factors … I’m aware that you’ll find this an unsatisfying answer, but since humans do in fact exhibit a large and complicated array of behaviors (I hope we can agree on this at least) a theory into which it all comfortably fits needs to be flexible enough to produce such an array.

Indeed, but the point here is that the same could be said of atomic theory, which, while perfectly true, tells us very little about what behaviors we should engage in, what strategies and approaches to life’s challenges are likely to be successful, etc. If “reinforcement learning” and “reinforcement learner” are that broad and general of categories, then just pointing that humans are reinforcement learners, in support of a specific claim or specific advice or a specific technique, etc., is not particularly convincing.

Maybe this is Bay Area bias, but the models that Qiaochu is relying on strike me as very natural, point to a lot of meaningful gears in my head, and my model of at least a large chunk of the people on this side have a similar experience.

I feel that reinforcement-learning based models were covered by a bunch of highly upvoted content on this site, let me quickly take 5 minutes to find the references I remember:

And a bunch more. This perspective of humans as reinforcement learners has been a core topic of a lot of LessWrong writing, and it seems reasonable for people to write things that build on top of that.

Thank you very much for the links!

As for the models—to me they seem oddly esoteric and specific to support such general claims (and, of course, I don’t have these “gears in my head” to point to).

However, perhaps I’ll change my mind after reading the posts you linked—which I will do at my earliest convenience!

Seems to me that this habit is there to help you be more like the kind of person who will satisfy their harmless curiosity on a whim. Not so much the burning desire to pursue truth that Yudkowsky wrote about; rather, a simulacrum of the same virtue we could (should?) apply to our daily lives in order to prevail over the status quo, as mentioned by another commenter.

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Ok. Follow-up questions:

  1. Should one’s comfort zone be as large as possible? Or is there an optimal comfort zone size?
  2. Is it possible to have too large of a comfort zone? Are there any people who would benefit from the opposite technique: Comfort Zone Contraction?
  3. How does one know whether one’s comfort zone is too small, too large, or just right? Are there any rules of thumb or heuristics for determining this?

Bonus question:

How harmless does “harmless curiosity” have to be, in order for it to be a good thing, to satisfy it on a whim? Must it be totally harmless? Or can it just be mostly harmless? If so, how mostly is ‘mostly’?

1) I think it would be absurd to have a comfort zone that dosen't preclude things to which you have a lot of emotional resistance. Anything physically or psychologically traumatising should definitely be outside of the circle for example. My assumption would be that the optimal size is always that small delta beyond your current comfort zone (dipping your toes in the water), up to the fixed point where you think things really become too uncomfortable to consider.

2) Basically covered in (1) by extension. A person who is too comfortable making high-risk-low-value choices, ie. a gambling punter, would likely benefit from the opposite, which is what I think you're implying.

3) I don't know the answer to that question, and it seems like one largely determined by one's ability to make good self-reflective judgements. It could just be whether or not I think that some part of my character could be improved by experimenting with new behaviours.

Bonus Answer: Your last question is a bit imponderable to me, almost impinging on the infinitesimal. I think the important point is that we try not to focus too much on the epistemics of taking tiny risks and thereby constrain our willingless to actually do anything new. Maybe someone else has a better answer?

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To list a few thoughts:

  1. Comfort zone expansion often comes with a reduction in stability.
  2. It can also result in people putting up defenses that make it harder from them to have more intimite connections.
  3. If a person has a burnout, then they need to do less and not expand their comfort zone in a way that adds further stress.

I'm a lifelong lurker on all things social media, which is something I'd like to change. In the past 20 minutes I've made various comments (Reddit, Steam review, etc.), sent some messages to strangers and wrote a Tweet. It may not be much, but it's more than I've done in the whole past year. I hope to continue this and grow into someone who enjoys contributing and interacting in online communities.

Thank you for this post!

That's great to hear, I've been slowly working on this myself in recent years. E.g., it's greatly improved my gaming experience - from being a total lurker to engaging with Discords, posting bugs and suggestions, occasionally writing Steam guides - it's enriching for sure.

I spent 2 timers writing down approximately nothing. My brain mostly generated large projects I'm already interested in (like itavero's), and things where I have no interest or potential benefit. Many of the examples like "shout as loud as you can" felt like this.

I understand forcing myself to do things I'm slightly uncomfortable about for practice, and in entertaining more ideas to avoid under exploring. 

Looking at my recent history I have asked strangers for help with something, joined and started posting here, and started trying to mashup melodies on a piano roll. That looks promising, though I expect I should still be exploring more.

For the next week, I resolve to watch carefully for opportunities for new actions, and especially the feeling of discomfort that may cause me to avoid them, and to pause to consciously examine the choice.

Last June I attended the Authentic Man Program Intensive, which was quite a bit outside my comfort zone at the time, and it was maybe one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It planted a seed for a dramatic shift in how I relate to women that I'd be happy to discuss in more detail with anyone who's interested but privately (there's one more happening this March and it might be the last one).