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Getting into the Discomfort Zone

I was reminded recently of a trip gone afoul back in September by someone who read a review I wrote of a cooking school I attended. Not that the experience was easy to forget; I still wince when I think of where else $3000 could have gone. Then again, that money might have disappeared like ashes strewn in the wind on nothing significant.

I won’t go into the gory details. Because in the end details don’t matter as much as we think they do. When we focus on the details, we miss what really matters. And sometimes we use the details to avoid looking at what really matters.

But a couple details for context.

I’d been dumped via email when I got to Italy, which I guess is better than being dumped via a post-it. I was far better off without the relationship, but it was still lame and cowardly. I was alone thousands of miles away and watching randy Italians nuzzling each other on every street corner. They do that…a lot…everywhere.

I set my sights on the cooking adventure I was about to embark on. But because of sloppy handling of details on the cooking school owner’s part (enough to justify a refund I was too chicken to ask for), and a rather morose personality to boot, I found myself in place that should have otherwise been pretty blissful. In light of my recent cyber dumping, exhaustion from travel, speaking in my non-native tongue, and a nasty cold coming on, I was in a pretty fragile state.

Here I was doing something I love—cooking—and seeing the joy sucked out of it. And I was pissed off that I was letting someone suck my joy.

Is there anything good in this story, you might be wondering right about now?

Well, yes, I did enjoy a lot of good food and wine. It all sounds pretty privileged to have this opportunity, which was one reason I had to get hold of myself. I reminded myself that travel isn’t supposed to be all fun. I thought about how it would sound when I returned home. Friends and family would want to hear about my amazing week cooking in southern Italy. And how much of an ungrateful jerk I’d sound like if I told them I’d been pretty miserable.

Jonah Lehrer talks about the cognitive benefits of travel, which you can read here. In it, he says “…if we want to experience the creative benefits of travel, then we have to re-think its raison d’ètre. Most people, after all, escape to Paris so they don’t have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here’s the ironic twist: our mind is most likely to solve our stubbornest problems while sitting in a swank Left Bank café.”

We travel, I decided, to go up to and beyond the edges of our comfort zones. We don’t envision missed trains, hotel rooms that smell funny or someone stealing our credit card information to charge $777 worth of WalMart goods. (There went my never-shopped-at-WallMart streak.) We want not to bawl on a sidewalk at 6:00 in the morning in a town in the middle of nowhere because we’re exhausted, confused and missed the only bus of the day. But bawl we do (or at least I do). But then angels with packages of tissue swoop down from above and you have no choice but to embrace your sloppy mess of humanity right then and there.

It doesn’t take traveling to force us to embrace the uncomfortable. But when we travel, we’re not at the top of our game like we are when we know our surroundings well. We take this familiarity for granted. Familiarity is great. But it doesn’t push us.

We’re more alive when we’ve gone to, and beyond, our edges even if what’s happening sucks by most travel standards. We look back months or years later and forget the mishaps. That’s all well and good. But there’s gold in these mishaps. Mining it in the moment, instead of looking back much later on the good stuff, makes us learn more about ourselves and what we’re made of. Those necessary evils of deciphering train schedules, avoiding cultural gaffes, and calculating tips in a foreign currency are when the brain synapses really get going. This is the gold.

The same gold is found in other discomfort zones when we learn to paint, swing a racquet, utter foreign words, play the guitar—and stink at it. We’re too eager to make the uncomfortable part to go away. Embracing our fumbling is what they mean by Beginner’s Mind.

One night at the cooking school, we had dinner guests. A kind, soft-spoken man named Alessandro sat next to me. A writer and an olive oil producer, he and I talked in half English-half Italian most of the evening. I sensed he was a kindred spirit, and when we were alone I asked how I could travel halfway around the world to find myself in a kitchen with this guy (reliving experiences with my father). He told me three things. As soon as he said them, I knew I had gold. I was thankful for the presence of mind to know I had gold despite my pounding head and stuffy nose. (He was the second angel.)

One of them was this: “Perhaps you had to travel all this way to figure out something important. And you must write about it.”

I’m not sure yet what I figured out. But I do know it’s perfectly normal to come back from a vacation feeling like you’d wandered into a war zone.

Got a travel-weary story and a lesson learned? Share it!


  1. Jeff says:

    I’d say there are two kinds of vacation travel. The fun, relaxing kind involves sipping drinks on a beach, or a drive through pretty countryside. The other involves discomfort and personal challenge.

    While it’s nice to take it easy and relax among pretty scenery, we who live in the Northwest don’t need to travel far for that opportunity. Your trip to Italy could have been much easier, and you could have spent your time looking at art, architecture and eating gelatto. But then you wouldn’t have had interesting stories to write about. You still weren’t clear about what went wrong with the cooking classes, so you have another opportunity to write. I wouldn’t be suprised if it doesn’t seem so bad when you describe it.

    My ‘salsa tourist’ trips to NYC have been similar in a way. The first, in particular, left me feeling fairly demoralized. I expected to become a better dancer; but towards the end of my 12 days, I felt worse than ever. The surprise was after I got back, maybe a week or two later: Suddenly, the tension I had always felt when dancing, was gone. It struck me that I’d spent almost two weeks in NY and survived without getting laughed out of the clubs.

    • Jeff, I love what you said about your salsa experience. Sometimes we never look back and realize there’s a connection between our current victory and what looked like a past failure. If only we could embrace our demoralized selves in the moment…You have a lot of guts stepping into the NY salsa scene!

  2. Erica says:

    Some of the most life-changing moments of my life have happened when traveling. It might take you years and years to figure out what you’ve learned, but you’ve always learned something, even if it’s just to trust that there will always be angels.

    • Indeed Erica. And I love your last comment about trust. It’s like the idea of making gratitude lists, which I’ve done but am bad at remembering to. But the more you do it, the more you actively seek things to be thankful for. I think it works the same way as trusting that some good always comes from uncomfortable stuff. If your mindset is waiting for it, you’re more likely to notice it, right?

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