Comfort Zones…

…by Theoklitos / from Greece / PhD Precision Medicine / 3rd Year

Since this is my first blog post, I want to make one thing clear. Blogging is not within my comfort zone. I have never done anything like this before. I have tried to establish a journaling habit a few times before, mostly because I heard that a lot of “successful” people incorporate it into their daily routines, but it has never stuck. Sometimes, I write down my thoughts on paper, but it mostly serves the purpose of clearing my head and getting me out of negative spirals. Very few people ever read these… ruminations. Accordingly, the thought of writing about my experiences as a student and posting them in public was quite an uncomfortable one for me. Strangely, it was exactly because I felt this way that I decided to try it.

Another variation on the same theme comes in the form of another great fear of mine; public speaking or stage performance. This has been with me since I was a kid, all through school and into university. I distinctly remember the first day of inductions in my MSc course (MSc in Neuroscience, University of Crete, Greece), when the organisers were telling us that our course would involve a lot of presentations, as would a career in research. I remember thinking “What have I gotten myself into? Is this really the right path for me?”. Some tens of presentations later, I now feel more confident about them, but there is always a twinge of anxiety building up over the days leading up to one. With this in mind, when I was accepted for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, I decided to try improv theatre as a tool to become more relaxed and confident in these kinds of situations, as they come up more and more often now. A colleague of mine and I applied for and were awarded a Student Experience Grant by the UoE to organise improv workshops for PhD students, and the first set of 3 workshops was completed with great success two weeks ago. I was mortified before the beginning of the first session, but by the end of it I was exhilarated. The instructor (Will Naameh of the Spontaneous Players) did a brilliant job of establishing a safe environment where it was not only okay, but desirable to mess up. Through a series of cleverly designed group exercises and partner scenes, I felt myself (and the people around me) relax and become more comfortable being ridiculous, boring, funny, and everything in between, all in front of 15 of my peers. I couldn’t wait for the next two sessions and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest, since we focused on new aspects of improv such as truly listening to our partners and learning to let go of any preconceived ideas in the service of the common goal of a great scene. All in all, an experience which has opened my eyes to many ways we can improve our day-to-day interactions, both academic and personal. (This is the link for the new set of workshops Mon. 11th of November, 6.30pm)

Finally, the greatest step outside my comfort zone I have taken until now is starting a PhD. If you decide to become a PhD candidate, you should bear in mind that you will spend most of your time outside your comfort zone. By now, any subject you might pick has already grown far beyond a single human’s complete understanding. Thus, there will always be areas in the field you’re not familiar with, and there will always be scientists with greater knowledge than you. Experiments will not work on the first go (unless they carry trivial information) and people will ask you questions you cannot answer. You will never feel like the finished article, never feel completely satisfied with what you have achieved or learned. But I believe that if I keep going in the direction of this feeling then it means I’m progressing. Growth in any area necessarily entails some “pain”.

So, I believe that we need to change our associations to discomfort, from something to turn away from, to something in which to actively seek. In my opinion, if we strive to push the boundaries of our comfort zones, they will eventually encompass much more diverse experiences and our lives will be richer as a result.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage” – Anais Nin


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