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On Expanding Your Boundaries

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mim

In my recent post on goal-setting for the year, I mentioned 'doing things that expand my boundaries'. This is one of those ideas that is very clear in my mind, but turns out to be quite abstract when I try to articulate it. It is related to going out of your comfort zone, or that wonderful notion developed in Saki's short story of an 'unrest cure'.

The point is to extend oneself - in both the sense of to make an effort and to enlarge. The idea emerged over some years from observing the contraction of older relatives - how as they reduced their spheres of activity, capacities and interests reduced too. Of course the slowing with age is ultimately inevitable, but it seemed to me that the quality of lived experience is different when people choose to live safely within their limits all the time as opposed to when they challenge those limits periodically.

Two things in particular I noticed about this qualitative aspect. The first was mood. Pushing out against their limits lights people up; the stimulation of the new lifts the spirits and energises life beyond the event itself. Conversely, in the absence of novelty, mild depression can start to settle in. Second was the location of the boundaries. When people live entirely within their current capacities, those capacities shrink to fit. If you stop attempting something, sooner or later you lose the ability to do it.

Of course, this is not only about older people (though I'm hoping I remember these thoughts as the decades roll by) - it's just that sometimes seeing something happening very clearly to others helps you recognise it in yourself. I have known for a long time that my confidence in any activity is closely tied to how much I'm doing it, and this sense of expanding or contracting personal boundaries seems to articulate the wider context of how this happens.

'Boundaries' is an abstract term inasmuch as it is a metaphor that encapsulates multiple dimensions. It is partly about activities - indeed, it is this dimension you see in lists of New Year's resolutions that include items such as:

  • Learn a new language/instrument
  • Cook a new recipe every week
  • Join one or more local societies
  • Try 5 new things this year

Activities are of course closely related to capacities - it is in doing things that we acquire and enhance skills. But these are also about environment - putting yourself into different physical places and social contexts. Hence the cliché that travel broadens the mind: simply being in places and with people where you have to react anew rather than fall into established patterns of behaviour and response bumps you out of living on autopilot.

The boundaries are also - as a consequence of these concrete dimensions - attitudinal. When you are in the habit of doing things that, in anticipation, make you feel slightly daunted, things where you question whether you can, indeed whether you dare do them, those feelings don't put you off. The uncertainty of outcome becomes attractive because you get familiar with the pay-off of exhilaration when you've done it. The possibility of failure holds you back less because you have lived through it often enough to know you can weather it. Doing begets a can-do approach.

When you get into the habit of backing off from things, that starts to become the path of least resistance. It's comfortable, but as you retreat back into your shell, the things you withdraw from look bigger and scarier. (It's a strange reversal of perspective, this. In real life, things look bigger as you get near them. In the world of psychological risk, size is realistic from up close, but gets exaggerated as you run away.) Not doing begets a reluctance to try - and the boundaries contract further.

As I said when I started doing stand-up comedy, I spend so much of my life pushing people out of their own comfort zones, it is good for me to put myself on the line sometimes too. Of course, two years on, I'm much more at home in that world. Not that there aren't plenty of challenges left for me there - I'm still very junior in the scheme of things - but I know my way around now, the conventions, the craft. I will be doing things this year that expand my comedy boundaries for sure, but they're not going to give me the same adrenal kick as starting out did.

This is another way of saying that, experientially, the impact of a challenge is less to do with its objective level, but how it relates to your own prior experience. Semantic depletion operates at the level of life as well as language.

So expanding your boundaries is not necessarily the same as increasing your professional expertise/contribution to the universe, although the two can often go hand in hand. But I tend to think that if we're not expanding our boundaries in some dimension as a matter of course, our work will suffer. We will operate more effectively in all areas of life - and have more fun - if we keep our courage topped up.

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