Stumbling outside my comfort zone

At just about every workshop I lead there’s a point where the participants move outside of their comfort zones. Sometimes they boldly leap across the line that separates where they feel safe from where they don’t. Other times it’s a more tentative shuffle.

It always happens on a Dark Angels course. But it happens too in unexpected places – in a corporate messaging workshop, for example, where an innocuous question like ‘what does your organization really do?’ can take participants into a place where they’ve not been before; a place that can feel suddenly discomforting. Especially if their boss is in the room.

But never mind. I can make reassuring noises about the fact that everything will be ok; there are no wrong answers; nobody is being judged; anxiety is just excitement by another name, etc. And it’s true, nothing bad does happen.

Yet even so, it’s important for me to remember that, while it’s easy to say these reassuring words, it’s less easy to listen to them. The participants are the ones being encouraged to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, not me. I know the fear will pass quickly, but that doesn’t make it feel any less real in the moment.

“I need to feel the fear myself, so I don’t forget what it’s like. I should take my own medicine”

This is why I think it’s important for me to get outside of my comfort zone every once in a while. I need to feel the fear myself, so I don’t forget what it’s like. I should take my own medicine. And that’s how I found myself last week at something called The Lab.

How to describe The Lab? Really, you have to go and take part to understand what it is. But here’s how its founder, the wonderful Steve Chapman, describes it. The Lab, he says, is “a not-for-profit place where people can experiment and be experimented on in service of enlivening human beings.  It is a safe haven for creative expression and failing happy.”

For me, entry into that safe haven meant spending the afternoon in a Bloomsbury attic room with 20 other creative weirdos (they would wear that name as a badge of honour, I think). On arrival, I was asked to write on a small card the name of any ‘experiment’ that I wanted to perform. These were grouped into those that run for less than 10 minutes and those that could take between 10 and 30 minutes (But nobody really knows for sure, as none of the experiments has been tried before – that’s one of the rules). When it’s time to start, a card is drawn at random. The person who devised the experiment then takes charge and the participants basically do whatever they are told to. When the experiment ends, we do another one.

In the four hours of The Lab I did some crazy things – things that likely make no sense outside The Lab. I played a game that had no rules; punched a Boris Johnson dog-toy in the face and reflected on what it felt like with a partner who’d stood on Theresa May; squashed a grape into my forehead just because someone told me to; devised a short film to market the appeal of ‘humanity’, then acted it out with ten people; enthralled a group with my description of a photograph that didn’t exist; and started a revolution.

“There were times when I really wished I was somewhere else. But that was the whole point”

There were times when I had no idea what I was doing, and didn’t even know what I was meant to be trying to do. There were times when I really wished I was somewhere else. But that was the whole point. I’d gone so far outside of my comfort zone that if I turned around to look for it I would never have found it, so I just had to keep moving forward – which was also the whole point.

I had the chance to try out two experiments of my own. In the first one we played a game I’d made up called Frequently Questioned Answers. The second involved making a prototype of a ‘wisdom generator’ I’d invented called an Aphorismatron.

Normally, I put a lot of thought and planning into my workshop exercises. But these were experiments I’d only devised on the train that morning. I had no idea how they would work, or if they would work. That was scary.

When it came to the Aphorismatron thing, I had to make up a lot of what I was doing after I’d started doing it, because I didn’t have some of the things I thought I’d need. But I suppose that’s also the whole point of The Lab.

What did I learn? I am more confident, resourceful and resilient than I thought. But I need to keep reminding myself, none of it needs to have ‘a point’. There isn’t anything that has to be learned. The Lab just is. Which is why The Lab is so special. I’m still processing the experience, but this much I know: I loved it and will be going back.