I like the ground. More specifically, I like have my feet planted firmly on the ground. When you’re on the ground, there’s no chance of plummeting to your death. I’ve never quite understood adrenaline junkies who fling themselves out of perfectly good airplanes or jump off ledges attached to a giant rubber band. To my ground-loving brain, those things just don’t sound like good ideas. Or fun.
The ground is my comfort zone.
So how did I find myself 40 feet above my comfort zone doing a crazy aerial high-ropes obstacle course?
One of the first habits I decided to develop as part of my Excellence Experiment (see this post for origins and details), in the category of ‘living life excellently’ was to start doing things outside my comfort zone daily, or at least as often as possible. For the first few months, all of the things I did were simply new or outside of my normal routine, maybe a little uncomfortable (like getting up at 4:30 in the morning to go to a 7 am networking group), but nothing scary.
That was invigorating and shook things up a little bit, but as the boundaries of my comfort zone stretched, those things started to feel a little routine. I also began to recognize the role that fear had played in my life, and of how many opportunities and experiences I missed out on because I was afraid.
One relevant example: a year ago I was in Costa Rica and I chickened out on an amazing zipline adventure because I thought it might be too scary. Everyone else in my group went, and had a blast. I’ve regretted it ever since.
So I decided it was time to take it up a notch and really stretch my comfort zone.
Since my fear of heights has been a big part of how I’ve defined myself in the past, taking it on seemed like a good way of pushing myself and proving that I was no longer going to let my fears control me. I’ve been watching for a chance to try rock climbing (several climbers have told me it’s a great way to get over a fear of heights because you’re safely harnessed in and can’t fall far). But then an opportunity came up to try a local high-ropes obstacle course and zipline, so I signed up.
Here’s how it went…
I signed up a few weeks before the event, so I had plenty of time for the anticipation and anxiety to build. At first, I was really nervous. I started checking out pictures and videos online (for more info, check out Go Ape in Plano, TX). The obstacles looked really intimidating. But there were lots of good Yelp reviews, including some from people who were afraid of heights who had a blast. And somewhere along the line I switched from thinking about my fears to focusing on my commitment to do it, and how empowered I would feel afterwards.
Sunday afternoon as I drove to the place, I was doing a pretty good job keeping my nerves in check. I kept telling myself I could do it, and I was going to do it, no matter what. I pictured myself as a lion, and every time fear tried to poke its head up, I would roar at it.
We went through the safety instructions. You’re harnessed and attached to a cable the entire time from the moment you start to climb the ladder to the platforms until you finish the zipline at the end, so there’s no chance of plummeting to your death. This was reassuring. After walking across a practice obstacle (about 2 feet off the ground) and a mini-zipline, I was feeling pretty good.
The course is arranged in four sections, each starting with a series of obstacles and ending with a zipline back to the ground. As we approached the first section, I strategically positioned myself about fifth in line, so I could watch a few people in front of me, but not have too much time to let the anxiety build (plus the pressure of people behind me would keep me moving forward).
Finally, it was my turn. I connected my safety lines and started up the wobbly rope ladder. I realized my legs and hands were shaking. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like a lion anymore. I felt more like this:
But I kept going. I got to the platform and maneuvered my way around to the first obstacle. I took a deep breath, and took my first step. And then I took the next step. And another. Before I knew it, I had reached the other side. A few more relatively easy obstacles and I was at the zipline. My legs and hands were still shaking, but I had successfully completed the first section! All I had to do was step off the ledge. More deep breathing. I tried sitting into the harness like people had recommended online, but that didn’t work for me. So finally, I just hung onto the rope and jumped, and took an exhilarating ride back to the ground, where I landed butt-first in a pile of wood shavings.
As I walked over to the second section, I was feeling a little more confident:
However, I soon discovered that the first section had been deceptively easy… this next section had a some really crazy obstacles, like a vertical cargo net you had to climb across like a spider, and swinging obstacles that moved when you stepped on them. It was much more physically demanding. I had a death grip on the side cables or guide wire the whole time, but I made it through.
I think section three was the toughest – positively wicked obstacles – the stuff to stand on was narrower or the steps were farther apart, and everything was swinging and wobbling. I remember being really grateful for every hour I’d put in at the gym, and all those push-ups I’ve been doing.
By the time I reached section four, I was tired and I had some bruises and rope burns from the last section; I was ready to be done. Thankfully, the obstacles didn’t seem quite as hard, or else I was so focused on getting to that last zipline that I didn’t notice. I skipped the optional Tarzan Swing (save something for next time!), took the faster detour, navigated a few more obstacles, and took my final zipline ride. And posed for my victory picture:
So, the ziplines were really fun, and now I can’t wait to go on a course that’s entirely ziplines. The obstacle course was physically demanding but doable. What was interesting was that my fear of heights never really bothered me – I felt perfectly safe the whole time. Looking down at the ground didn’t bother me. The nervousness I felt once I started was all about whether I could successfully navigate the obstacles, and I discovered that I could. Turns out I’m capable of a lot more than I thought I was.
And that leads me to the first lesson I learned about life from climbing 40 feet outside my comfort zone:
Life Lesson #1: We Are Capable of More Than We Think
If you had invited me to go on a course like this a year ago, I would have said no automatically, because I didn’t believe I could do it. First, I had labeled myself a chicken. Second, I didn’t think I was strong enough. I was the kid who always failed the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge, the one who could never get more than a foot or two up the climbing rope, the one who was always picked last in gym class. I spent my life labeling myself as unathletic, so I never tried anything athletic. But a few years ago I took up running, and I ran three half-marathons. And now I’ve done this. So I guess those labels were wrong.
Which makes me wonder, what else am I capable of doing that I’ve told myself I can’t do? What other artificial limits have I set for myself?
I think this is true for all of us. We each have stories we tell ourselves, stories that limit us, stories that may be based on one or two bad experiences, or something someone else told us about who they thought we were. Only by stepping outside our comfort zones, testing our boundaries, and trying new things, especially things that make us nervous or uncomfortable, can we ever discover what our true potential is.
Unless you’re one of those people who constantly pushes yourself to your extreme limits, you have so much more potential you haven’t even begun to tap into. So start tapping. I challenge you this week to take a step outside your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be a big step, and it doesn’t have to be a physical adventure, but try something that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe it’s taking on a project that requires some new skills at work, or maybe it’s starting a conversation with a stranger, or speaking in public, or speaking up for yourself. Whatever… you know where you’ve placed limits on yourself.
Start questioning whether those limits are real.
I learned a lot more from this experience, but I’ll save those insights for my next blog. Later this week I’ll post: “10 Life Lessons from 40 Feet Above My Comfort Zone”, so stay tuned!
And share what you’ve done to step outside of your comfort zone in the comments below!