Avoiding your Comfort Zone…



This post will be a bit more opinionated than others. I have long sought to increase my happiness by actively avoiding my comfort zone… Please allow me to explain.

Way back in NYC, I was exposed to a parade of illuminati in my field of Physics. New York City was a major port of entry, and the visiting scientists from abroad almost always entered New York City on their way elsewhere. It was an absolutely fantastic place to be a young student.

So I have personally met and chatted with no fewer than five Nobel Laureates in Physics. There were also many illustrious names from the Science Academy and elsewhere. It was important to listen to all of them, especially for a young, growing, mind. I have personally met with the likes of Paul Dirac, Hans Bethe, Thomas Gold, Carl Sagan, Arno Penzias, Willis Lamb, Madame Wu, and so on and so on.

One of those laureates was Ivar Giaever, the 1973 Nobel Physics Prize winner. And he told us the story of how he came to win the prize at the ripe old age of 44.

It has long been common knowledge that all the great minds in history achieved their master work in their early ages. But that is just an old-wive’s tale.

Ivar described how he had been a less than stellar student in his youth, and that he couldn’t be admitted into the college major that he wanted, and had to settle for a “lesser” field.

And then upon graduation, he had such a poor record in college that he couldn’t find work in his native Norway.  One thing led to another, and he met and married a Canadian woman, and then emigrated to Canada in hopes of finding employment.

He found work as a lab assistant at General Electric Co. One day he was lamenting about his fate. Already in his 30’s, he hadn’t accomplished anything of merit, in his mind. Surely his days were past.

But his supervisor pulled him aside one day, and counseled him, saying: “That old belief about youth is nonsense. It’s when you are learning that you do your best work!”. Apparently Ivar took that message to heart, because he went on to pursue his graduate degrees in Physics, and perform the work for which the entire world would marvel and award him our highest honors.

So, I took Ivar’s story to heart. My entire career has been one of always straddling two or more disparate disciplines of study. I try to force myself to learn and read uncomfortable things, because, as you know, it is always uncomfortable to learn difficult new things. It’s like sitting on a tack. It always feels so good then, when you sit in the easy chair.

Astrophysics has become my comfort zone, although it always offers new challenges. But the uncomfortable things are learning human anatomy and physiology, or studying the techniques of lauded film sound-track composers, or venturing into the realm of Economics and trying to understand that “Dismal Science”, or really appreciating the depths of human psychology from my wife.

For Crescendo, I had to pull out all the stops and become a human vacuum cleaner, hoovering up all the knowledge I could, about a totally foreign domain for me. We called it “drinking from the firehose of knowledge”.

And then I had to really think, uncomfortably hard, about what they said. Was it really true? Could I design a test to see? How could I usefully take my knowledge and experience from another domain and apply it here? My motto has always been, question everything!

I achieved the ultimate in discomfort, by operating entirely beyond the bounds of the known. There were no life-rafts out there. Nobody you could ask. Everyone would ridicule and doubt.

But in the end, I’m really glad I forced myself to go into the uncomfortable zone. I now have Crescendo, and my life has become so much richer with being able to really hear the music.

It is my sincere hope that these Blog pages will help someone else. I have always believed that I owe the Universe some payback for the privilege of witnessing its grandeur. And I live one more day to find tacks on which to sit…

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Author: dbmcclain

Astrophysicist, spook, musician, Lisp aficionado, deaf guy

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