“Comfort zone” speak is generally relegated to those who live life, you know, really take it on. I’m reminded of the crew of bros driving that snazzy Cadillac ATS full bore through those Chinese mountain tunnels and laughing and talking about the extremeness of it all. Those guys, the ones who relish taking jumps over waterfalls with helmet cameras, are bent on motivating themselves and others to “push beyond.” And beyond isn’t just testosterone-based; there’s plenty of ways to be someone who goes beyond, just like there’s plenty of ways to be uncomfortable. You can adopt a child, you can live abroad, you can finally write that novel, you can change jobs to follow that new passion, you can teach in the inner-city. You leave the comfort zone to fulfill your destiny. And so if there’s ever talk about comfort zones, comfort is bad. Comfort is acceptance of your situation–getting out means, in essence, choosing your own story, making your situation. Inherently it is associated with believing in yourself–something you’ll never do until you’ve gotten out.
Radiolab founder and co-host Jad Abumrad could really rake the laurels in this regard. Recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2011, he is renown for revolutionizing radio by experimenting from scratch, taking risks, and imagining new ways to make philosophy and science intriguing. This American Life‘s Ira Glass has accredited Abumrad with “creating a new radio aesthetic.” Before radio, he also composed film scores. If anyone’s talking comfort zones, you would think Abumrad is leading the choir out. And maybe you wouldn’t be wrong, it’s just that he sees discomfort in a completely different way.
For Abumrad, who recently and with much deference wrote about his success with Radiolab over at Transom, getting out of your comfort zone isn’t a choice as much as it is a description for how life unfurls. He tells the story of being on stage in front of thousands of people during a live show in Seattle, and his laptop–the engine of the entire show–a live show!–suddenly dies. Is this the kind of comfort zone you chose to get out of? Is this risk-taking? Is this waterfall jumping?
So there’s a question of what to do with a moment like that, what to do with the gut churn and the existential dread that is inevitable when you find yourself way outside your comfort zone.
And I think about moments like that now, and I think, I can either run from that feeling, we as a community can either run from that feeling, or we can run TO that feeling. We can treat that feeling as an arrow that we need to follow. Like, OK, I’m about to vomit, my stomach is about to leap out of my mouth…but maybe that just means I’m on the right track. Maybe that just means I’m doing my job.
Getting out of comfort zones, for Jad, is losing control, not gaining it. Accepting the gracious chaos that’s coming your way, rather than forging out your own splendid reality. Leaving your comfort zone is feeling like you might puke–and it’s not masochism, it’s reality.
That vomiting feeling is what Abumrad earlier described as the “gut churn” of anxiety–the Kierkegaardian dizziness that has been with Jad since the show’s inception. In the Transom piece, he is unfailingly honest about his desire to cut some narrative about beautiful and continual progress with Radiolab–that a vision was cast from the beginning and the show has slowly met that vision. Instead, Radiolab created Abumrad, created in him “gut churn,” which he talks about meaning a very basic fear of death.
For some reason, at the beginning, every decision DID feel like life or death. Like I would literally die if a story didn’t work. There was a kind of existential dread that hung over the entire endeavor, even though we were just making a radio show…heard…by no one.In fact – I find this fascinating – every night, WNYC drops the power on its AM frequency because AM radio waves tend to travel long distances, bouncing off the horizon and interfering with radio stations in Dallas and Canada. So WNYC lowers the power of the AM signal every night to such an extent that unless you were literally standing directly in front of the transmitter, you couldn’t even tune in the show.
So anyhow, I can’t exactly explain the existential dread except to say two things.
A) I don’t think it’s that unusual. I smell it on a lot of people I work with.
B) The dread might be the cost of freedom.
Kierkegaard talked about it this way: a man stands on the edge of a cliff and looks down at all the possibilities of his life. He reflects on all the things he could become. He knows he has to jump (i.e. make a choice). But he also knows that if he jumps, he’ll have to live within the boundaries of that one choice. So the man feels exhilaration but also an intense dread, what Kgard called “the dizziness of freedom.”
So gut churn is double edged. It’s impending death but it’s also the thing we all want: profound freedom.
Anyhow, my own dizziness/churn began the moment Mikel told me I’d have to host this thing. The word “host” unleashed a hornet’s nest of questions.
What kind of host should I be? Like Ira? Joe Frank? Robert Siegel? Am I a journalist? So should I be formal? Chatty? Personal? How personal is too personal? What stories are my stories? What music is my music? In other words: Who am I?
In this confusing dread, this fear of death, Abumrad says there is nothing to do but turn into the gut churn and wait for the “pointing arrows” that move one into the next phase of life. One does not create life’s pointing arrows, they simply arrive in passive retrospect. For Abumrad, it is not so much being the change in radio (and life!), as much as it recognizing what’s around you. His two points about recognizing changes? “1) Getting comfortable with the idea that you won’t know what’s good until it’s already happened” and “2) Having to selectively tune out listeners.” In short, understanding that you’re not in control, and tuning out the pharisees along the way. It seems for Abumrad and Radiolab, if anxiety is the fear of death, of being pulled out of one’s comfort zone, the only viable solution is to let go and move into that death with mindful eyes. It is here where freedom and imagination blooms. As he says it:
My point in all of this is that when I look back, we didn’t plan Radiolab.
It was not a conductive process, with two guys standing on pedestals waving it all into being. It was an inductive process.
So if Radiolab is actually what Ira says it is – “a new aesthetic in public radio” (god bless Ira) – and if Radiolab really does represent some kind of change…all I can say, based on my own experience, is that change isn’t something that can be planned. It’s something that can only be recognized.