At the gate waiting to board a flight to Southeast Asia, our mission team leader gave each of us a rubber band to wear on our wrist. He said it was a reminder to “be flexible.” He warned us that over the course of the trip, we’d certainly be stretched, but we should bear the stress appropriately (after all, rubber bands are made to stretch!). Throughout the trip as teammates would get frazzled, other teammates would kindly stretch their rubber bands and the frazzled ones would chuckle, decompress, and avoid snapping.
Stepping outside your comfort zone, whether that means something big like traveling abroad or something smaller, like reading books you wouldn’t usually read, causes a degree of mental stress. It is in these times we can remember the rubber band.
Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone is Stretching
Whether reading for pleasure, learning, or growth, the act of reading forces you to sit still and give something your full attention.
For some of us, the simple act of finding time and a quiet space to read is stretching in and of itself. But reading outside of your comfort zone—a genre you typically avoid, an author you disagree with, a topic you know little about—is stretching in a different way. This kind of reading stretches your understanding and expands your tolerance.
Similar to a rubber band that is used and stretched over and over again, our minds can be trained to become more and more flexible without breaking. Exercising your mind’s flexibility is not to say that you must give into other ideas or things you think are untrue. However, it does mean you have to submit to them for a time, seeking to learn something new or to grow in a different way.
For example, I am writing this blog post from a coffee shop. The entrance is to the left. The baristas are at the bar in the center of the room with their backs facing me as they work. If I look up, there are huge windows overlooking west Nashville. Underneath one window is a hipster with a shiny, blond comb-over.
If you were to ask him to describe the coffee shop, he’d tell you the entrance is actually to the right and that the baristas, indeed, have faces. In fact, every piece of his perspective would be in opposition to mine.
But both perspectives would be real and true.
Instead of fighting over who has the “right” view of Frothy Monkey, we could submit to one another’s knowledge and understand the coffee shop better, together, than we would have on our own.
This is what reading does. It forces us to sit in and understand another’s perspective for a while, to see things we didn’t see before, to measure new things up against our own perspective, and then depart with expanded understanding and appreciation.
It is Straining
Some say “hate” is a strong word. I affirm the word’s strength when I say that I hated the reading I was assigned for one of my classes.
I tried to be fair and open-minded, but no matter how hard I tried, I consistently disagreed with the philosophy being presented and the implications it would have for me if I were to accept the philosophy. I did not simply disagree with the content; the content cut me, as it challenged everything I believed and practiced in my profession.
My rubber band was beyond stretched. It was thin and trembling and straining.
But in his kindness, the Lord helped me calm down part way through the reading (… and angry-tweeting). The book was stepping on my toes, and I found myself at a crossroads. If I could rightly steward the strain, I could critically engage with the text and then allow that to either tighten my own philosophical beliefs, or I could be convinced to change my mind and adopt a new philosophy.
Reading outside my comfort zone forced me to not only engage with new content, but also to wrestle with my philosophical approach to the world. As my understanding was stretched to the point of strain, I acquired new information on the subject from a different angle and now have a better understanding of the subject as a whole and of my beliefs, in particular.
For the record: I did not change my mind on the subject, and I am currently commiserating with a friend who is struggling through the same assignment this semester. Though reading outside my comfort zone was challenging, I know I am better off for reading that book, I am a better practitioner of my craft, and I am equipped to walk with my friend as she is being challenged in similar ways.
It is Refreshing
Reading outside your comfort zone doesn’t always have to throw your rubber band out of whack. Sometimes, it can be refreshing! I’d go a step further and argue that reading for refreshment is not only enjoyable, but it’s also helpful for you in the long run.
I’m a member at my local Orange Theory gym. In other words, I pay people to hurt me. At the end of each session, our trainers do a short period of cool down moves and stretches with us, but they always encourage us to incorporate stretching and other gentle exercises into our time away from the gym. It’s important to vary your workout, to move your muscles differently, and even to take days to rest and recover.
In a similar way, I sometimes need to step away from the high intensity, strenuous reading and enjoy fiction. I wouldn’t necessarily say that fiction is “outside my comfort zone,” but when I read for my job and also read for my dissertation, it’s difficult for me to set aside time to read for fun or to read something that’s not “helpful” to my work. But this “brain break” is necessary for me. Giving your mind room to breathe and focus on other types of material will help it recover from its usual grind. In turn, that recovery time eventually allows you to re-enter more difficult reading tasks with greater focus and retention.
As a writer, reading different genres inspires me and boosts my creativity. As a researcher, reading different subject areas exposes me to thoughts from different fields and helps me find connections to my subject I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. And as a person who is friends with different types of people, reading more widely allows me to find common ground and engage with people in a way I wouldn’t be able to if I had always chosen to “stay in my own lane.” Reading outside my comfort zone truly affects every part of my life.
So what kind of books scare you? Which subjects seem irrelevant? What is something you wish you knew more about?
I challenge you to challenge yourself. Take on a new book, make yourself available, and go where the pages lead; there’s something good for you there if you’re willing to find it!