Go Outside Your Comfort Zone
By Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D. | CSUSM President
When you cannot read a street sign, change begins to take place. When you cannot rely on your native language to get you through even the simplest of conversations, you quickly learn to adapt. When the amenities and cultural norms you’ve grown accustomed to living with are challenged, you experience life differently.
Travel changes how you see the world and, perhaps even greater, travel changes how you see yourself in the world. Personal growth and self-discovery happen when you step outside of your comfort zone, and traveling can get you into that zone fast.
I was 23 when I boarded my first international flight. The destination: Malaysia. But this flight – which would seed my passion for travel – was not intended for vacation. I was moving to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. It was a real change from my East Coast roots and it was my first time leaving North America.
Although I lived in Kuala Lumpur, I traveled along the eastern coast of Malaysia and visited rural areas as well. Living abroad opened my eyes to so much of the world, and those experiences imprinted a deep desire to see and experience more of it.
Two years later, I stepped further out of my comfort zone when I accepted a job managing research and training contracts for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Cairo, Egypt. Being a young, working mother in the Arab world in the late 1970s had its challenges.I had to navigate through gender roles and discrimination as well as harassment in public areas. I had to hone my skills as a leader within a culture that was new to me. Active listening takes on a whole new meaning when your team's first language is different from your own. Motivating staff also proved to be an interesting challenge, as salary incentives did not exist in Egypt at the time. Instead, I had to develop a leadership style grounded in intrinsic motivation, and the power of persuasion.
Rarely do I visit the same place twice but I keep a record of every trip and every city. I also maintain a list of all the countries I have traveled to (44 nations so far), as well as a list of all the places I still want to see. I have had the privilege of visiting and living on six of the seven continents, excluding only Antarctica.
When I travel, I like to wander and discover hidden shops tucked away. I like to sample authentic flavors at quaint restaurants and cafes untouched by commercial tourism (although always with caution in regards to food preparation). I like to explore a city, town, or village as much like a local as possible, and meet new people along the way.
As I wander, I always find something wonderful: a clearer perspective. Traveling always gives me an opportunity to look both outward and inward. When I go abroad, it is easy to see firsthand our many interesting differences, whether political, religious, or ethnic, that are equally compelling and powerful. It is through travel that I know that we don’t always have all the answers in this country – from how we engage in diplomacy to how we do business. Travel also gives me an appreciation for what I consider the comforts of home.
For all the amazing growth that comes from traveling, living in another country is transformative. Don’t just take my word for it, ask any one of our 390 international and exchange students at CSUSM. They will tell you – just as I have experienced firsthand – nothing can compare to the eye-opening experiences of living, studying, working, and managing the ordinary tasks of everyday life in a foreign country.
As summer approaches and you begin to make plans, I hope that you will consider traveling somewhere new. It doesn't have to be far, or expensive, or even international. Diverse experiences may be just up the street or a road trip away. I encourage you to use this time to explore, to study abroad, to travel, and to live outside your comfort zone. It will change you – I know it changed me. And, like me, it could begin to prepare you for a career you never saw coming.