I’m at a point in my life where I can not only appreciate the value of stepping outside my comfort zone but I can capitalise on it too.

Taking risks can be framed as a bad thing in today’s risk averse society, and for many years I approached it this way. But it’s often just outside your comfort zone where the best things happen. A question I’ve often asked myself though is how do I reap the benefits of stepping outside my comfort zone when by nature I’m risk averse? I think I’m probably not alone in pondering this so I wanted to share a recent experience that might help other cautious, would-be adventurers.

Risk in itself is not a bad thing, by definition it is just unknown. A risk taken could lead to good, bad or neutral things and whilst it’s important (and healthy!) to recognise that you’re rarely fully in control of events in life, there are usually ways to approach risk that can help tip the balance towards good experiences. Importantly though, these approaches also help reconcile my fears and anxieties with my sense of adventure.

My personality at its extremes is both risk-averse and adventurous and I have found in the past that these two facets grate against each other, leading to bad decisions. Too often I would get frustrated that my anxiety and fear held me back from adventure so I would stop listening to my concerns and rush headlong at the experience…not great. I didn’t realise I was silencing and losing the benefit of a really valuable safety mechanism. In time, the bad experiences that arose from this style of decision-making taught me not to take risks at all. It took time and more than a little help to realise that I actually had the ingredients for really excellent decision-making, I just needed to integrate these two facets of myself into the process rather than bouncing between one extreme and the other.

The key for me is cautious risk taking – listening to my fears, figuring out whether they’re real or imagined and putting in place precautions to protect my safety should those fears become realised. Of course, sometimes no amount of caution will completely mitigate the potential danger. In this case it comes down to a simple question: will I be happier with this experience in my life, whatever the outcome than if I don’t experience it at all? For instance, when it comes to riding the bike, I know the dangers each time I get on it through harsh experience but my life is so immeasurably enriched by it that I could never stop simply because something bad might happen. This approach has helped me make peace with the bad experiences I have had as a result of riding. Each time something does happen I re-evaluate and listen to the answer. If it ever changes, I’ll stop riding and won’t regret the decision, but it hasn’t yet.

Everything I’ve written about on this blog so far has been outside my comfort zone to an extent. But recently I had an experience which I feel really illustrates the benefit of taking a chance and also the way I approach it.

I was determined to get out and explore some of Southland, NZ when my 6 week contract in Dunedin finished. My budget was tight though and accommodation here is not cheap. But life is for the living and I didn’t want to let the financial worries stop me experiencing everything I could. A year ago at the recommendation of a friend I’d signed up to Couchsurfing but had never taken it further than filling in my profile. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a look.

To be honest initially, it was just fun to entertain the idea. I had no intention of contacting anyone. I’m a woman travelling alone in a foreign country, staying with strangers didn’t really fit the textbook description of safe things to do. But as I browsed through the profiles I happened upon a couple who piqued my interest. We shared enthusiasm for similar things, travel, biking, books, pets. Their profile written by Roz, chimed with me, I couldn’t say why exactly but something in it spoke of a genuine, open person. Their profile had been verified by Couchsurfing and they had 16 reviews, all very positive. These spoke of a charitable, warm and welcoming couple. On the other hand, their place sounded remote, and maybe the internet information was lulling me into a false sense of security. What to do? I decided to contact them and take it from there. Besides, it was short notice and chances were that they wouldn’t be able to put me up anyway, and that would make my decision for me.

To my surprise, Roz got back to me later that day accepting my request. The communication was easy and relaxed and by now I was feeling more comfortable with the whole idea. But, still cautious, I forwarded their address and contact details to Mickey, I gave him my housemate’s number in case he needed to contact someone in NZ and I told him when he would hear from me. If he didn’t hear from me by that point he should raise the alarm. I was also prepared to leave if anything at all felt wrong, my housemate was kindly lending me her car so I would be able to leave quickly if I needed to. I’m also pretty confident in my ability to judge someone’s intentions, my life has given me no shortage of practice at this and I don’t feel bad doing it. If anything feels wrong, it’s not a judgement on the other person it’s about how safe I feel. If it’s below a certain threshold then I’m gone. In situations where the surroundings are unknown and I’m the only one I can rely on I absolutely do not let those ‘hmmm that’s weird’ moments fall on deaf ears.

I arrived in Invercargill just as my phone data ran out leaving me without a map so I stopped for directions, got a little further and then decided to call Roz. She directed me in the rest of the way in (I was only 3 minutes away as it turned out!) and I found contact with her put me further at ease. I arrived at Roz and Michael’s beautiful home to a warm and very natural welcome. Straight away I got the impression of people who were natural hosts, comfortable with themselves and others and crucially, absolutely no hint of anything strange. At this point on meeting strangers I would usually dial back the instincts a little so that I can relax and be myself but also keep much of my guard up. Even in safe situations, I naturally keep my guard up until I have the measure of someone as this avoids most social blunders! Roz and Michael though completely and immediately disarmed me and I sank into the happy, effortless state of just being myself, this is biggest indicator to me that I’m on safe ground, if this happens then I’m picking up only good vibes. Some people just have what I think of as a resonance with others, I could use many adjectives and superlatives but to sum it up, these were people who most definitely added to the lives of others rather than draining, they were at once engaging and engaged. There was also a feeling of complete and easy equality in the way they related to each other. I’ve heard it said that you can tell a lot from the way someone treats their mother but I also think you can tell a lot about how a person relates to their partner. You get a glimpse into how they behave when guards drop and all the social niceties and conventions – all the things which restrain us into best behaviour – have fallen away. It’s a window into the core of a person without having to spend years getting there yourself.

They had a friend visiting too from the Netherlands and the four of us sat, chatted and drank wine as Roz cooked up a delicious dinner. They were well versed in local birds and were able to identify one or two that I’d been wondering about, and they showed me the visitors to their garden taking obvious delight in the wildlife around them.

At one point in the evening, Roz perceptively noticed that Couchsurfing must be a bit of an adventure for me given what I’d told her so far about myself. They were curious about what had drawn me to contact them so I explained as best as I could. I commented that I admired them for inviting people into their home, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to and Roz told me that because they had enough to share that they were happy to do so. They got the benefit of meeting interesting people who enhanced their lives and brought fresh perspectives, their visitors got the benefit of a warm welcome, a warm meal and a warm bed. I was struck by how simply she put it, and by the reciprocality of the arrangement, which is as it should be. I realise as I write this that this spirit of reciprocality was very much alive in our interaction and was possibly what put me so at ease – I was conscious on some level of what I brought to the table and that they valued it. We were, in effect in a contract. This may sound very business-like and inhuman but in reality I believe the opposite: that responsibility to each other is what connects us – and allows us to connect – to one another. If I choose to accept an invitation into someone’s home and they treat me with respect then I take on a responsibility to give something of myself in return and reciprocate that respect. If I’m uncomfortable in fulfilling my side I would decline the invitation or leave early. I’ve heard a few stories, from friends, of inconsiderate couchsurfers who freeload their way around a country, giving nothing of themselves back to their hosts. In the same way that I had gone through a process of protecting myself to ensure a good experience, Roz and Michael gave examples of how they had arrived at their way of doing the same, thereby ensuring the best chances of an interesting and engaging experience.

Although I recognised the benefit as mutual, I couldn’t help but feel grateful, not only for the bed shared but for them sharing themselves a little too. As is so often the case, it is the people that make the travel and my stay at their house remains a highlight of my time in NZ. We had a wonderful dinner, put the world to rights in a relaxed sort of way and retired to bed ready to watch the rugby the following day.

The following morning I woke to the sound of birds in the garden and we all got up to watch the rugby. We’d established that we were all fans the night before and although I had to watch my country go out of the world cup, the enthusiasm in the room for the game matched the fight on the pitch and it was a great game. It was hard to feel too weighed down with disappointment in such congenial company. After another homecooked meal I hit the road again for my next stop in Te Anau. I left with warm hugs, new friends and invitations to come back and visit with Mickey when we make it back here. Importantly too, I left with the nice warm glow I get with the knowledge that I’ve taken a small risk and it’s paid off by making my life richer than it was before. The great thing about experiences like this is that the next time you get a chance to take a chance you’re a bit more willing to do it. The following day I took another small step out of my comfort zone and went out hiking alone on the Kepler Track with some stunning views, you can see the pictures from that little adventure above.

So, to those of you who yearn to travel but don’t feel that you are a natural born adventurer I would say this. Neither am I. But it can still be managed. Learn to listen to your instincts and do things deliberately and cautiously, but do them, your life will be richer for it. Most importantly, do not deny parts of yourself as you may be losing your most valuable safety mechanism. Listen to what your anxieties are telling you and let them inform your precautions and how you proceed but don’t let them hold you back. Go in with eyes open, instincts on and eager to experience and respond to both the good and bad that life brings.

Fjordland, a vast tract of mountainous terrain that occupies the south-west corner of South Island New Zealand, is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first imppulse, standing on a cliff top surveying it all, is simple to burst into spontaneous applause. It is magnificent. – Douglas Adams

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