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Comfort Zone

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I have long held the belief that people benefit from interaction with others. This is easy enough in theory but can prove difficult to practice. Even so, we must move broadly in society if we wish to achieve our potential.

Some people are surprised to hear me make a proclamation about value in being connected to others. Surprise to my remark was almost universal when I was at a stage of my career where I had managed to work myself into a nearly solitary existence, where I could go for days without seeing another person except my wife when she returned home in the evening. I remember it as a wonderful time, when I could think for long stretches of time without fear of interruption, working on whatever schedule best suited by my natural biorhythm that day or week. It was a period of tremendous development in my mastery of technology and significant productivity.

To say that I had a solitary existence isn't technically accurate; I was keeping in touch and collaborating actively with dozens of people. I was staying connected more broadly to thousands. My connections were not maintained through in-person meetings or by telephone: I was using email, online discussion groups, and various publications. I had become mostly asynchronous; even where closer contact was necessary, the connection was a constant low-priority presence, accepting information when I was ready to release it and giving it to me when I was ready to receive it. I'd check it only when I didn't have something more pressing at hand.

These days, life is more complicated. I've found that to achieve the objectives that I've set before myself, I have to spend a lot more of my time synchronously. Meetings need to be held in person at mutually-convenient times and I don't even arrange my own schedule anymore. I've got an agenda for the day, often full of meetings and phone calls that were deemed necessary to achieve some end that I find desirable.

In truth, though, things aren't that much different. I now have a lot more people to help me get the results that I'm looking for. The people I interact with need facetime and an opportunity to ask questions. The results of my work are now bringing about change and affecting the strategies of whole organizations rather than simply the opinions of specialists who need to decide whether the bit in front of them should be flipped on or off.

The goal that I'm pursuing here is simply stated but far-reaching and difficult to achieve. I'm trying to close the gap between the “state of the art” and the “state of the practice,” that is, to make the use of computer and information science relevant and useful to the issues that are facing people as they try to achieve their ends.

Bringing about such a change is not easy and I realized relatively early on that doing so would require more than publishing papers and books. It would have to involve getting out there and showing people by example just not what to avoid but what to pursue when given a particular objective. To achieve my goal, I would have to leave the comfort of the laboratory, even while trying to stay connected to it.

My life's work, including but not limited to my professional pursuits, takes me through a wide range of society. I work with senior executives and the people working at various layers throughout the bureaucracy, including the people who work on the front lines of the business, pushing the bits around to support the operation, and the people providing the service or product to the customer. I work with educators and administrators hoping to provide a sound education for the young people in our public education system. I work with litigators, general counsel, and other attorneys that specialize in all kinds of issues. I work with immigrants, many of whom do not speak English and with whom I can communicate only by speaking Russian, a language I have learned and continue to study for that purpose.

Some of my acquaintance have everything. Others have nothing. I have put myself to a purpose, though, and I work to help those who want my counsel and are willing to help themselves. Two abilities I have developed are not optional in such a situation: being comfortable with myself and seeing people for who they are. Like everyone else, I have a station in society and some awareness of what that station is. Even so, I must be comfortable with others, the sort of comfort derived from respecting them for whatever can be reasonably accorded to them. If nothing else, they're autonomous human beings, free moral agents, due the rights of liberty in thought and action common among all members of the human race.

Plenty of people are willing to accede to statements like “no one is better than anyone else by virtue of inherent ability, wealth, or education,” but I grow nervous around people for whom I fear such statements are merely empty platitudes. I am skeptical when people claim that “too much” liberty leads to disastrous ends because “most people” simply “can't handle” it. Such proclamations are judgments that people make against one another. Lately, I've begun to realize that such judgments are often really defense mechanisms, borne of the speaker's lack of comfort with the context in which he finds himself.

* * *

One early July, I was called with another into a residential area that had been in decline for some time. Once a charming neighborhood with large homes that lined the street and housed the upper ends of the middle class, it was now overrun with poverty. Perhaps half of the homes stood empty. None was in good repair. Lawns were not maintained. It was a sad testament to the ill effects of someone who gives up, followed by another, and another.

My partner stopped the car to park on the street and proclaimed, “This place is a real dump.” Several minutes later, a girl of about ten years old shouted to us from three yards away that the house we were approaching was vacant. “She's going to grow up to be an A.B.W.,” said he. Having no idea what he meant, I inquired. “An angry black woman.”

I sighed deeply. I did not like either of these remarks. She was just a child, probably only trying to be helpful to two strangers, and doing so with the only behavior that she herself has been able to witness personally.

Having known the man for many years but never having known him to be a bigot, I was surprised and confused. Prejudice was in fact antithetical to the purpose of our visit. I wasn't sure whether to issue a rebuke or to let it go. I was angry. I was deeply disappointed. More than anything else, I was sad. In the end, I said nothing of it even while refusing to share in the sentiment; under the circumstances, I thought it best simply to demonstrate more appropriate behavior. I struggled for months to understand what happened that day.

Three months later, I found myself with the same man going into a neighborhood with an average home price that probably pushed just into seven digits. As we navigated the streets in search of the right one and then the right number, I heard my friend once again going on and on about the neighborhood. “I've heard of neighborhoods like this,” he said, “but I didn't think that they really existed.” Coming from someone who is a relatively high-level manager in a relatively large organization and who maintains two luxury cars that are never more than three years old, the remark surprised me as much as the less-flattering one back in July. Suddenly I understood that I was dealing with someone who had a specific comfort zone.

While his zone of comfort included people of a broad cross-section of society when measured by race, occupation, or origin, it apparently did not include native-born citizens whose station was at the bottom of the economic scale, nor those of any significant wealth. We weren't in a neighborhood of billionaires. The homes were not mansions. They were generous in size, made of excellent materials, and reflected craftsmanship. These were family homes, well-maintained but not particularly ostentatious. (I also seriously doubt that my friend, more than twenty years my senior and a builder by profession, has not seen such neighborhoods.)

That someone who has lived so much of life could experience such discomfort as to make judgments that separate himself from his environment struck me as incomprehensible. I felt sad again.

* * *

“If you keep on doing what you're doing, you're going to end up right where you're headed,” another colleague used to tell me from time to time. Each of us has a certain zone in which we're comfortable. It's familiar. We know our way around. It comes from having spent time there.

Spending time in our comfort zones is perfectly reasonable. It is there that we can feel safe, recharge ourselves, and to be built up. Yet, I feel compelled to raise a question. To what end? Why do we recharge?

We recharge so that we may once again venture off in whatever direction necessary to achieve the goals that we have set out for ourselves, to realize the objectives that we are pursuing. If our goals are well-defined, they will be within our reach and they will help us to develop—as individuals, as communities, as societies, and as a species.

One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one's greatest efforts. —Albert Einstein, 1915

Unless everything is precisely perfect in its present state, we must venture beyond our comfort zones.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2007-08-24 07:42 PM

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