Life starts at the end of the comfort zone
Words by Jacalin Ding
I had to suddenly learn everything from scratch while navigating a culture that was completely foreign to me.
My destiny to undo comfort zones started 9 months before I was even born. I was that “illegal” 2nd child born in China in 1982. My mum had her entire pregnancy without telling anyone outside of the family.
When I was born, I had to call my auntie “mum” and call my mum “auntie”. I actually didn’t know the truth until I was 4, when my family revealed that it was actually the other way around and my “auntie” was actually my “mum”. In the way only a 4-year-old toddler could, I thought to myself, “everyone else only has 1 mum and I have 2.” I felt really special. As I reflect on it now, it was a sign, the idea of living a “normal life” was never going to be on the cards for me.
My parents worked their arses off so that they could send me and my sister out of China to receive a “better” education. So in 1996, at the age of 14, with my sister aged 15, we arrived in Australia. My cousin who lived in Australia was to be our guardian while mum and dad remained in Hong Kong and continued to work. It might seem crazy to most western kids, but this scenario is totally normal for a lot of immigrants. You just have to deal with it for the potential of a better future.
However, as a 14-year-old girl, my world had been suddenly turned upside down. I suddenly found myself in a country where I didn’t speak the language, I had zero confidence and was left doubting everything. I had to suddenly learn everything from scratch while navigating a culture that was completely foreign to me. At that time, the only English words I knew were “yes” and “no”. I remember crying myself to sleep every night for the first year, missing my friends, my relatives, the familiar food, and the life I used to have back in my motherland. My mum constantly reminded me, how many kids back in Asia would wish for an opportunity like this so I should just count my blessings and focus on learning instead of being a “victim”. She was a tough mum, and she was right, it was the best way to build resilience.
Before long I realised that I was able to take care of myself and tackle everyday challenges that most of my friends wouldn’t know to do. I started my first job as a waitress at age 15 and quickly started saving towards my first solo international holiday.
As I reflect on my early childhood, I am reminded of the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt.
“A woman is like a teabag - you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
By the time I was 17, I had saved enough and my first solo international trip began. Singapore, Korea, then Japan…and just like that, I was hooked. With no accommodation, no travel plans, and definitely no travel guides, I started to fly to a destination with just one return flight ticket and some cash to last me for a week. I lived for the uncertainty and counted my blessings. I’d figure out where to stay after I landed in the country, I’d try to push myself to meet local people to get recommendations on things to do. Sometimes I even ended up staying in a country to work for a few months. At age 19, I decided to stay in Osaka, Japan for a good half-year, and nope I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t have a job offer, but why does it matter? I can always figure it out, I’d done it before.
Solo-travelling started to become an “un-comfort zone” test for me. I loved the idea of “unknown” because “unknown” gave me an opportunity to discover. I also got to train myself to react to problems/challenges and think on my feet, it truly felt like a superpower.
The truth is that, if you don’t push out of your comfort zone, you’ll never know how capable you are.
Finally, at the age of 21, I set foot in New York City, and that changed me forever. I decided I wanted to stay for a while, because, well who wouldn’t?! I need to see if this place is really “where dreams are made.”
🗽They say “if you can survive in New York, you can survive anywhere”.
At that time I had just enough money to pay for my deposit for a tiny 12sq foot East Village studio. It was the same old situation: I didn’t know any friends there, I was there without a job, without a degree, and without a visa. My mum wasn’t going to give me any money, no way, quote mum: “It’s your own decision to do this on your own, so when things get tough you just gotta figure it out” (Asian parenting, hands up if you know what I mean 🙋🏼♀️)
Being a rebel kid at 21 I just didn’t care. This was my theory: “Money comes back, Experience doesn’t.” I had zero worries and worst-case scenario, I can find a job in hospitality to pay the rent.
2 weeks later, I still hadn’t a job, I worked out the math and I had about $2/day for food for the next few weeks.
So this is what I did: 📝 I took out a piece of paper and start writing down:
- Places that offer FREE food and wine: Art gallery openings, churches etc…
- My strengths: Meeting new people, starting conversations, and socializing.
- My weaknesses: I wasn’t good at being vulnerable.
- List low-cost food options
“I gotta work with my strength,” I thought. Forget about the weakness part, it’s not going to get me anywhere. So I let my guards down, every night I’d dress up funky like a ‘gallery-goer-girl’ and attended various art openings around the East Village, I made friends and enjoyed free food, and wine — in style. On Sundays, I’d rock up to church for free lunch (although I’m not religious). Again I counted my blessings, social skills are good soft skills, they come in handy at times and I’ve got them in buckets.
After just 2 weeks of doing that, I had got 3 job offers from the different people I had chatted to at art galleries, these were all sorts of design jobs with pretty decent pay! I ended up staying in New York for nearly 2 years. That experience changed my life. The truth is that, if you don’t push out of your comfort zone, you’ll never know how capable you are. #yolo
I’m grateful my mum didn’t do what most mums would do and throw money at every problem. She did it the hard way and so did I.
Now I’m in my late 30s, I haven’t had a full-time job for almost 5 years and I still think quitting my last one was the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve learned to love the hustle of not getting a set paycheque but rather, the need to keep learning to stay on top of the game and win new projects and yes, it gets easier the more you do it.
I now have the freedom to choose who I want to work with. After observing some of my colleagues and students who’ve been in a full-time job for so long (I’m talking 5+years) they often display these traits: They are often in a senior level at work and being used to being “always right” and lack any of the “child-like” mentality needed to learn and be open to new perspectives. They are afraid of change because they have lost touch with what’s outside in the wild world. They lack the willingness to question how things are done. They became passive. The more time passes, these factors escalate.
Repeat this after me: “Comfort zone” is a trap. Change means new growth.
When standing in front of a challenge, welcome it, try not to say “This can’t be done”. That’s the laziest and most pessimistic attitude. ✋🏼Stop, Allow your brain to figure it out - learn to see all Difficulties are Opportunities. Trust me it’s addictive once you start challenging yourself, you’ll soon realise that 👉🏼 every problem has many, many solutions. It’s a breakthrough feeling, once you start tackling challenges constantly, you’ll feel your power to problem-solve accelerate. It’ll train you to stand taller, be more confident, be more optimistic, feel stronger, calmer, wiser, happier. It truly is a gift that keeps on giving. And just remember when it gets tough count your blessings.
Here are some small steps to start with:
- Take a trip to somewhere completely foreign (when we can travel again)
- Try a type of cuisine that scares you
- Learn a new skill if you always think it’s not something you’d try
- Basically, just start saying “yes” to life more often.
Get out there, and dance with “uncomfortable”. I would never let a comfort zone downplay my potential. Would you?
Jac is currently Heading Design at Hotelr, Australia, where she is supporting the team launch their MVP product. Over the last 15 years, she has assisted organisations in turning their biggest, wildest ideas into long-term viable products. Jac has worked with start-ups, enterprises, and digital product agencies in New York, Vancouver, Tokyo, Singapore and now back home in Sydney, Australia.
Jac coaches and mentors designers about product and experience design, and also facilitates workshops to assist clients in transitioning their organisations to be Design-led.
Her goal is to help pave the way for a better designed and well-balanced future, and believes mindsets directly impact one’s success. Jac has also founded a sustainable fashion label called “The Rushing Hour” and has just launched a 100% biodegradable collection.
Jac loves music, food, travel, languages, and indoor plants. You can find out more about her via Linkedin.
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