Jousting the Dragon

November 18, 2014

Working on the very early stages of a new book — the stage where nothing is clear yet, and my brain feels like it’s trying to catch rays of light with a fishnet.

This is extremely uncomfortable. From time to time (like every ten minutes) I have to get up from my chair, leave the computer, and walk around the room, just to let the mental ache back off.

And then, of course, I have to go sit down again. And let the mental ache resume. (Like Giles Corey’s last words, in The Crucible, as his torturers try to wring a confession from him by slowly crushing him with heavy rocks: “More weight.”)

Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Does it ache? Positively.

How many times have you heard it said that to accomplish great things, you have to “get out of your comfort zone”? This has never sounded right to me. As bits of advice go, I think it’s flawed in all sorts of ways.

For one thing, I don’t think comfort is a zoned-off area you can zip yourself into, like a sleeping bag.

In fact, I don’t think it exists, this waterproof air bubble, this germ-free decontamination chamber, this saferoom of the mind that keeps all discomfort and unease firmly locked outside its perimeter, and inside of which you can count on feeling cozy and comfy and unthreatened.

There is no zone small enough, no chamber sealed tightly enough, to keep discomfort out. No matter how tight the seal, discomfort is an expert at seeping right in through the cracks.

Or maybe it wasn’t “out there” at all. Maybe it was right here with us on the inside all along.

And even if there were a comfort zone, I’m not so sure about the “getting outside” part.

The idea that to be successful means getting out of yourself can sound curiously attractive. There’s something exciting and challenging about the idea that the path to growth and accomplishment lies in stepping away from your everyday self. Too often, though, that path just leads to a place where you end up feeling forced and inauthentic.

It can actually be a lot harder to step bravely into the middle of the circle and fully be yourself.

I think what happens to people who achieve great things is not that they go looking for discomfort “out there” to vanquish — like a knight of olde, seeking a dragon to joust — so much as they change their relationship with discomfort.

Jousting the dragon within.

And this isn’t just about writing. Ask any Navy SEAL what was the biggest battle they fought in the effort to survive Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S), surely one of the most fiendish experiences of discomfort known to man, and he’ll tell you: it wasn’t the long days and nights on end of no sleep, or the hours immersed in the frigid nighttime Pacific, or miles of running in heavy boots in the sand.

It was the struggle with that voice inside that said, “I can’t do this. I’ll never make it. I should quit.”

All I know is this:

When I get up from my desk and walk around for a few minutes, what I’m doing is stepping briefly out of my discomfort zone. And sooner or later I will climb back in — because that’s where the real work happens.

(Blue Dragon by Sandara)


  1. Ana Gabriel Mann

    Just when I thought the tired old adage about stepping outside your comfort zone was a worn out metaphor, you give new meaning to it. I love it: the ability to step into one’s place of discomfort and approaching it authentically as a part of the process instead of the dive into inauthentic action and missed opportunity. Thank you!

    • John David Mann

      I have this belief about tired old metaphors: within every cliché lie fresh truths ready to hatch!

  2. Kristi Bodin

    Mann, this is timely! I am today dragging myself to and from the keyboard to finish two writing projects that are taking far too much time, energy and angst to complete. A refreshing reminder that we all (well, most of us!) go through these struggles!

    • John David Mann

      Jousting the draggin’!

  3. Laura Steward

    Read this as I was prepping for my radio show and found I kept stepping away because there was discomfort drafting all the social media and posts about the show. Read this on one of the step outs and was able to go back in and flow again. THANK YOU! How do you get into my brain like that and then speak the words I am feeling?

    • John David Mann

      Ah, good question. You did not read this here, but I am trained in literary covert ops.

  4. Anna Bassett

    Wow … how timely.

    Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about my “comfort zone.” I’ve come to the conclusion that my comfort zone is my own prison that I have created through my behaviour, fears and lack of self esteem over the years. Hard to get out when you are surrounded by bars and a door that is locked from the outside. We are creatures of habit and often are reluctant to try something new. We’ve been trained from early childhood to stay within a “comfort zone” (often someone else’s and not our own). It’s like the way they train baby elephants to stay in their small confined area until it becomes their comfort zone. They tie a strong chain around a leg which cannot be broken by the baby elephant. By the time they become adult elephants, they have learned to stay in their comfort zone which can now be defined by a light rope as the elephant has given up trying.

    The good news is that one can change their mental conditioning and we all have the key to unlock that door. Growing means taking risks and that means getting out of our comfort zone. To do that has always created anxiety and stress for me. But each time I have done it, I feel liberated and encouraged to continue to step out.

    Having courage and being brave to go out there is not always easy, but it sure is worth it!!

    Thanks John


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