Life Lessons from Durham: On Departing Comfort Zones


‘It’s okay to be scared. Being scared means you’re about to do something really, really brave.’

Back in sixth form, one of my classmates used this as her quote in our leavers’ yearbook. At the time I considered it cliché, even cheesy, akin to ‘When it rains, look for rainbows’ or ‘She believed she could, so she did’. But in the light of my first year at Durham, I’ve started taking its sentiment more seriously.

When I left school at eighteen, I thought I knew everything. Well, not everything – there was still that degree to get, and probably something to learn about how to rent accommodation, do a weekly shop and generally be a functioning adult – but I didn’t think there was much left for me to discover about myself. I knew about my skills, strengths, and hobbies, and was all too well aware of my weaknesses.

Of course, when you get to university, you realise that everything you know about yourself only applies within your own little bubble of normality: a set of practices, habits and activities to which you are wholly adjusted, or what we call a ‘comfort zone’. The limits of this comfort zone are tested the moment you drop your bags in your new college bedroom, when you introduce yourself to the people in your corridor and when you encounter the maze of flyers and opportunities that is the freshers’ fair.

Everyone deals with this in different ways. The naturally outgoing thrive on this sense of adventure, signing themselves up to anything and everything, drifting like social butterflies between the dozens of new friends they made in the first week. Others react by doing the opposite, retreating into themselves and sticking with what they know. I had always placed myself in the latter group, until I actually made it to Durham and found myself acting like I was in the former. One of my strongest memories of those first few October weeks was venturing out, alone, one evening to Palatinate’s welcome event, where I introduced myself to several editors and writers, who all took time to answer my questions – less than a month later, I was on the editorial board with them. With hindsight, I don’t know what I was thinking; the idea of walking into a bar full of strangers terrified me then and it still does now. But I did it, and it makes me kind of proud.

Since then, I’ve learnt to thrive on scaring myself, on daring to go beyond what I think is possible. Durham seems to foster in its students a continuous process of expanding your comfort zone, until you forget that you had one in the first place. You have to keep trying new things all the time.

The truth is, there is no such thing as a comfort zone. Even the phrase ‘comfort zone’ suggests an unchartered territory of ‘scary’ things: experiences, activities and opportunities which are automatically more difficult or inaccessible because we are not familiar with them. A comfort zone is something we create for ourselves, a collection of our experiences and skills that we mark out as our own personal limitations. We aren’t born with a comfort zone – we acquire one, and can deconstruct it just as easily as we first created it. Trying something new can be challenging (or even terrifying) but it’s also exhilarating, and Durham took less than a year to teach me that, while living within my arbitrary parameters of ‘comfort’ might be safe, it’s also kind of boring.


Photograph by Andreas Polydorides (@follow.andreas on Instagram)

One thought on “Life Lessons from Durham: On Departing Comfort Zones

  • ” – but I didn’t think there was much left for me to discover about myself. I knew about my skills, strengths, and hobbies, and was all too well aware of my weaknesses.”

    If you are still in your early twenties, get ready for a shock – you still know nothing about yourself. If you’re lucky you might know a just little more by your forties. But perhaps you won’t.


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