It doesn’t matter how many times you do it and how successful it turns out to be, in the end, every time you do. Stepping out of your comfort zone is never easy and never feels pleasant. If you set about trying to improve your technique or learning something new, in a purposeful way, it’s a fair bet that your initial efforts are going to, quite frankly, suck. If you’ve been secure in your comfort zone, getting good results consistently, it feels awful to suddenly get bad results, or at least results that you are not content with. Your comfort zone, like a giant magnet, draws you back to doing what you always did, the same old way, producing nice, safe, but good results. The draw can be overwhelming.
It’s important to keep in mind why you stepped out of your comfort zone in the first place. What was your purpose for doing so? Is it still a worthwhile goal? If hard pressed, are you any closer to that goal, even if by a minuscule amount?
Learning is difficult, but the result of learning is a new freedom in your creative work. Even if you don’t achieve that, just by dabbling with something new you can learn what you appreciate about what you already can do, but now with new eyes and/or ears. At the very least, it’s a useful clarification and taking stock.
Nobody said that, having produced artistic work that lots of people liked, you won’t feel the fear of exposing your rank amateur first results of your new process to these same people. What if they finally, at long last, recognise the reality of your imposter status? We all feel like imposters at one time or another. Part of the epic struggle of the artist is to resist the idea that we’re not good enough, worthy enough or our work liked enough.
So is this an argument for not stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying to learn some new thing of use to your art? No. Absolutely not! I think you have no choice. Failure to do so relegates you to the ranks of the chocolate box painters, the cover bands and the copiers and fakers. The only way to prevent sclerosis and atrophy of your creative powers is to occasionally test them (almost) to destruction. You need to feel the discomfort of producing sub-standard work, for a while, as you conquer the new way of doing things. It might be a new way of mixing and applying colours, when you paint, a new language, a new approach to playing a guitar, using some new piece of music theory and some scales you didn’t know before. It might be an attempt to dig into the depths of your authentic soul to write something deep and authentic. Whatever it is, you are suddenly reduced to the status of a beginner and a vulnerable one at that, because you have thrown away your life jacket – the comfort zone techniques that you have perfected so far, which have been the foundation of your artistic reputation to date. Where you once had facility, now you only have clumsiness to show for all your effort.
My advice is to embrace the discomfort, the shame and embarrassment of producing work not up to your usual standard. Find a way to withstand the fear and uncertainty that maybe this backward step won’t be temporary, won’t pay off and will render you incapable of even doing what you used to know how to do. When you step outside the comfort zone, you are never really sure how it’s going to turn out. It might not be a temporary backward step. Sometimes it can turn out badly. Usually it resolves in a much more useful and positive way, however.
Creating your creative self involves expanding, extending, learning, growing, transcending, struggling, failing, falling down and battling against intractable new technical challenges. It can feel rotten; damned rotten. It can feel disorienting. It can feel thankless and pointless. You can feel like you’ve lost your Mojo for good. But the struggle is worth it. The only way to become a better artist is to go through these agonies. Nothing worthwhile seems to come easily, at first. The only comfort you can take is that, at the end of the process, you might have learned something that can take your art to new heights, open your way forward, toward greater accomplishments and permit your imagination to do what it was constrained from doing in the past.
That has to be worth the pain, surely.