“Do one thing every day that scares you” is one of those pieces of general life advice which floats around our culture, appearing on motivational calendars, self-help memes, well-meaning columns and being variously attributed to Great Figures of the Past. It’s also a saying I have a few problems with, and a quick grumble on Twitter the other day suggested that I’m not alone. It’s not that the saying is glib – though it is certainly that – but that it contributes to an inaccurate account of how our society works, which in turn shores up the entitlement of certain powerful groups to influence and resources
Sadly, my initial problem with being told to do things that scare me, or “get out of [my] comfort zone”, was not based on this structural analysis. It was simple irritation. On the most basic level, this advice seems crass because it assumes that adversity is something people should seek out in order to develop their sense of self and achieve great things. As opposed to something which many people are already struggling with, and which they would like to generally avoid in the interests of that sense of self and those things they might wish to achieve.
In that sense, it is the product of a remarkably privileged outlook. It has the air of a graduation speech at a very comfortable liberal arts college. It complacently assumes that danger and insecurity are not the natural states of people’s lives, that they must be sought out, even cultivated, for personal growth. In assuming that, of course, it reflects a very small proportion of the lives lived in our society. Many, many people have no need to seek out physically or psychologically threatening experiences, since they are faced with them every day.
If a young woman is intimidated by obscene cat-calling on her way to work, has that ticked the fear box for the day, or should she seek out some more dangerous situation? If the combination of both shopping and a visit to the doctor seems an insurmountable obstacle to a disabled person, have they sufficiently left their “comfort zone” to be living authentically riskily? Should a nurse born abroad choose to buy their milk and bread in a shop which displays posters for a political party which regularly makes rhetorical attacks on people like them?
The very implication that people should “do” a “scary” thing – rather than withstand the scary situations other people put them into – is founded upon a level of control and privilege which is given to a relatively small number of us. To be able to talk of scaring ourselves out of choice is to shut our eyes to the choices which other people do not have. And to the ways their lives are chosen for them by others, who have little interest in their personal growth or existential flourishing.
There is something troubling too about an outlook which sees the risk and insecurity the world can subject people to, and decide that it’s a good tool for honing a CV. Just because the exhortation doesn’t apply to everyone – as the discussion above suggests – doesn’t mean it is meaningless. (Though the string of caveats which apparently have to be added about who should ignore this advice certainly wear away its authority as a piece of general life advice.) But we might find it morally queasy that discomfort, anxiety and fear are imagined as ways to polish the individual’s personhood. They’re not things one might experience whilst living in solidarity with those who face them every day, but an opportunity to build up one’s individual achievements and capacities. Vulnerability feels too serious to be co-opted for building a personal narrative.
So the phrase may be glib, crass and sound morally uncomfortable. But I think there is a further problem with it, and the attitude it expresses. This crystallized for me when I saw a self-styled business “guru” define an entrepreneur as someone who “lives like others won’t for a few years, so they can live like others can’t for the rest of their lives”. This is subject to all the criticisms I’ve already suggested: it is smug, arrogant, assumes that everyone is basically trouble-free and living lives of quiet satisfaction, and that personal pain and adversity is a bracing tonic applied to themselves by those brave enough to face it. It makes me wonder where this “comfort zone” we’re supposed to all be inhabiting is situated, and makes me speculate on what the qualifying factors are for citizenship.
But more than that, it reveals the pernicious culture of victimhood which is apparently sapping the will of rich people in our society. In “doing one thing every day that scares” them, and advising everyone else to do likewise, are they not justifying their success by the extent to which they have been hurt, or afraid, or vulnerable? Bizarrely, this libertarian entrepreneur seemed to be suggesting that he deserved great wealth not because of his talents, or his skills, or his contribution to the economic system, but because of his suffering.
This self-imposed exposure to the dangers and vulnerabilities of other people’s existence was not simply a strategy to achieve material success, but a justification for the possessions he had accrued. He must be most entitled to them, because he had undergone discomfort and danger in acquiring them, and (presumably unlike those feckless ordinary people who simply face risk and insecurity because our society is unfair and uncaring) had done so deliberately. But this is the same logic that conservative politicians and libertarian pundits claim is destroying the moral fibre and the social fabric of our country. This is an assumed victimhood, an argument for one’s personal value based on oppression rather than merit.
Here it becomes clearer why the “comfort zone” and “one scary thing every day” cod-philosophy felt so morally queasy: because it leverages other people’s vulnerability in order to argue that powerful people deserve their possessions, their political influence and our pity. Never mind the departments of academic sociology, or the websites of the bien-pensant broadsheets, here is where the real culture of victimhood thrives: in the pseudo-Nietzschean platitudes of business gurus. It should surely make us worry about the wealthy and influential individuals who can only imagine themselves as vulnerable and victimised.