SINGAPORE: The final five kilometres of each day were always the toughest.
So close yet so far away. Shoulders aching, head pounding, calves throbbing. And I’d end up wondering to myself: “Just how did I wind up here?”
The short answer was that it had begun with a call from my editor - asking me if I’d be up for a walk along the circumference of Singapore. The journey would roughly span a week and possibly cover about 140 km.
For one, this would be an assignment that requires a certain level of physical fitness, a challenge given how 2020 finds me probably the least fit I’ve ever been. The COVID-19 pandemic has put paid to my semi-regular recreational games of football, and I’ve barely done much exercise apart from that.
But the tougher challenges associated with the trip would probably be the professional ones - in particular appearing in numerous pieces to camera.
GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH THE UNCOMFORTABLE
Those who know me well enough know that the one thing I dislike more than jogging is appearing on camera fuelled by the fear of being scrutinised on the way I look, talk and act.
This assignment meant putting myself out there, and as the journey progressed, it would probably leave me a shoddier version of myself. Clearly, I would need a thick skin, thicker than usual.
So I had my reservations, but I said yes anyway - partly because I have been taught that when your boss says jump, the only right response is: “How high?”
But there was another reason I agreed to take up the task - I wanted to push myself, not just physically but mentally as well.
As a reporter, I’ve learnt to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s truly the nature of the job.
During the course of my two and a half years at CNA, I’ve interviewed the president of a far-flung republic in the western Pacific, discovered a secretive world of pet breeders in Singapore, and shared the pain of grieving families in the Philippines.
For somebody who kickstarted his career writing about 22 men chasing a ball, none of these experiences came remotely close to anything I’d done in the past.
And the going had been tough.
There was always the familiar, lingering taste of trepidation. Had I done enough research? Would I make any mistakes? Was the quality of my work good enough?
This used to really bother me.
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Before working on a piece, I would think of the many potential pitfalls I might face and whether I would be able to deliver a story. But as I continued to step outside my comfort zone, the less I dwelt on the what ifs.
As a friend of mine states in a tongue-in-cheek Instagram bio: “I used to fear hurdles, but then I got over it.”
A WALK IN PROGRESS
During the course of the walk where I was accompanied by my colleague Gaya Chandramohan, I found myself constantly being challenged, nudged further and further from my comfort zone.
I learnt how to prepare my video scripts on the go, how to toggle between navigating and hosting a surprise guest as well as how to handle the added responsibilities of working on a live blog.
But the journey was just as much about learning new things about myself as it was about learning new skills.
For one, I noticed that my body was capable of far more than I’d ever given myself credit for – my legs would get wobbly at the end of the day but recover by the next morning.
Also, I realised that I actually enjoyed walking as an activity - with the right company and weather, it can be a joy.
A comfort zone is commonly understood to be an area at which one functions with ease and familiarity. Here stress, anxiety and vulnerability are likely to be minimised.
It is to many of us a place of refuge, a shelter to feel safe and secure, an oasis of calm in a swirling maelstrom. It is precisely this reason - that we don't end up sheltered in our little cocoons - that each of us should dare venture out of our comfort zones every once in a while and step out into the storm.
For me at least, the storm was where I learnt more about myself than I ever did, huddled in the shelter. I rediscovered my new strengths, understood past weaknesses. I faced my fears, addressed my anxieties.
A general search of the term comfort zone throws up a variety of listicles, the majority of which are centred around on why stepping out of a comfort zone is important - 16 reasons, 5 benefits, 10 ways - it goes on.
NOT EVERYONE STEPS OUT
But as common as such advice is, it is not often heeded.
A 2017 study by the British Heart Foundation found that more than half of the participants surveyed don’t venture outside of their comfort zones.
The survey of 2,000 UK residents found that just over 30 per cent couldn’t remember the last time they tried something new or stepped out of their comfort zone while 24 per cent said it has been more than a year since they did.
In a TEDx talk which has seen over 1.5 million views, Stanford graduate student Zhang Yubing begins her talk with the example of how she finally plucked up the courage to take a literal leap of faith - jumping off the highest bungee tower in the world no less.
A quote on a window spurred her on to take the jump, said Zhang. It read: “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” And throughout her talk, Zhang emphasises the mantra that “it’s never as scary as it looks”.
But I would like to refine what she said.
Sometimes, challenges may be as scary as they look. Yet by constantly facing them, standing up to one’s fears and stepping outside of your comfort zone every once in a while, what was daunting in the past becomes less so now.
And life doesn’t begin at the edge of your comfort zone – life begins wherever you want it to begin, but it is the experiences at the edge of your comfort zone that add more value to your life than you’d ever thought they would.
So why not give it a go every now and then? Try something new, do something challenging, embrace something new.
During my walk, the final five kilometres of each day were always the toughest, but I began to notice how they were getting progressively easier.
My shoulders would ache just that bit less, head pound just that bit less, calves throb just that bit less.
I’d wind up there because I had made the decision to challenge myself, to expand my comfort zone.
And now, I’m all the better for it.
Matthew Mohan is a senior journalist at CNA.