Pushing beyond the comfort zone

When was the last time you experienced a moment that made you pause and consider your approach to life?

I had one of those rare experiences last night when I attended a concert by the eclectic Sufjan Stevens. I am admittedly a huge fan of this incredibly talented performer but was unprepared for the onslaught that occurred in the intimate confines of an old vaudeville theater.

Stevens is best know for his quirky, banjo-infused tunes and an angelic voice that lifts up songs about the darkest and funniest sides of human nature.  His music is usually categorized as folk or folk-rock but last night the acoustic instruments were put aside for a computer and synthesizers as every corner of the room was filled with pulsing space-rock bleeps, pops and crackles.

Like most fans, I was looking forward to hearing his old acoustic songs but the concert instead blazed through epic new anthems. At first it was dis-orienting, maybe even a little disappointing, but slowly his musical vision was peeled back song by song and I was moved by his courage and artistry.

He told a story of experimenting with electronic sounds so deeply he felt he couldn’t get out.  He described the kinship he felt with an Alabama primitive artist who struggled to create through bouts of insanity. It was a centuries-old artistic struggle to create something entirely new out of uncomfortable places.  I didn’t like every song. Some seemed monotonous and repetitive. But others soared in epic beauty. What music could I compare this to?  There is none.  And that is the achievement.

His music reminded me of a Jackson Pollock painting. Drips and drops filling every space, lush colors spilling over a canvas. Sometimes difficult to understand, but undeniably unique.

The other signature element of Sufjan’s music is his deeply personal, spirtual and courageous lyrics.

After two hours of bombastic music filled with two drummers, a horn section, three keyboard players and every electronic gizmo in the music industry, he stood alone on the stage, playing a guitar, singing his hauntingly beautiful “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” — yes a song about a serial murderer who raped and tortured young boys.  But the song is not about this criminal horror. It is about himself. The last lines of the song had some in the audience in tears:

“In my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”

And with a look of humility and exhaustion that punctuated the song, he looked into the audience, waved, and exited.

Sufjan Stevens leaves nothing on the stage.  He pushes his craft to the edge of every comfort zone … and beyond.

What would it feel like to live like that?  To WRITE like that?  Is that even possible?  What’s next? I am unsettled.

If you would like to hear the John Wayne Gacy song, click below:

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  • Jim LeBlanc

    I am inspired by this post. As far as pushing it to the limits, Mark I think you have already begun that process. Your ideas ARE so different than the other blogs I’m reading. I follow your articles on GROW because of your ideas on business but I am a FAN because you are different. It’s Ok to be unsettled. I think it’s why I keep coming back to this blog. Thank you for this. I am going to go to itunes now and check Mr. Stevens out.

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  • My most recent moment of change came after our recent phone conversation. My perspective on life and friendships was changed after our conversation. I’ve pushed myself to reach out to my online friends, and really get to know them in real life. Social Media makes it too easy for us to make “friends”, but how many of us step out of our comfort zone to really get to know each other. I’ve always been a driven person who pushes through challenge and adversity, but after a while, even that can become too comfortable. It’s always inspirational to see and hear about others who leave it all out on the table. It makes you reevaluate and contemplate your own boundaries. This post is great food for thought! Another great post. Thanks for sharing Mark 😉

  • I’m not sure, Mark. Like you–unsettled. ‘The comfort zone’, I think, is a ‘management concept’ for skilled performers that features two sides of comfort; their own, and the audience. Performance is about managing that ‘coin’, and ‘memorable’ performance probably hinges on emotion… what more raw than fear and discomfort? In the journalistic vernacular, what is your take on HS Thompson and his brand, ‘Gonzo’? What a talent, but literary performance, right?… nails on the chalkboard of the establishment…and comfort was ‘nowhere’ in that equation. So Hunter did his job and busted rules, regs, and everything else to put his audience on the edge… but that was his job as a performer.

    So to your question… “What would it feel to live like that” ? Well probably like being a performer… but I think most performers are ‘very comfortable’ in ‘stretching’ their audience if that is the goal.

    Both Jim and Reza have a healthy perspective on the ‘good’ of being ‘stretched’. On the other hand, living in ‘continual’ discomfort is not for me. I suppose that is why we go to concerts, ehh?


  • I agree with Reza, I am making more of an effort to get to know people.

    I have also just started an online radio show, which is very, very new for me, but after two shows (both talking to myself :-), this week I have a guest. I’m not as uncomfortable doing the show as I thought I would be.

    And…we all get too comfy with what we know. But if that artist had not expanded his horizons and instead stayed with what he had… he would be a “has been” in no time.

    “An oldie” his music would be called 🙂

  • Good word about Sufjan’s concert, Mark. It would have been easy for Sufjan to stick in the “safe” zone – at least commercially speaking. He’s carved out a nice niche for himself as a soft-spoken indie-folk singer.

    But…the guy seems to be primarily an ARTIST, and not just a performer. I enjoyed watching how natural and personal he was both during the songs and monologue times. He was just a guy up there doing what he does…

    With this album and tour he’s proven his ability to keep growing, thinking beyond what has previously been the standard. The question I face in stuff like this, though, is at what point does artistic growth and redefinition begin to abandon one’s origin or fundamental principles? Not saying he’s there, it will just be interesting to see what his life and artistry continue to produce over the years to come. I hope he stays true.

    Nonetheless, I think we all can benefit from questioning the comfort zone!

  • Mark

    Thanks for all your insights and comments!

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  • How I wish I did not watch that video. Now I, too, am deeply unsettled. And profoundly sad. I’m afraid I feel compelled to comment on this experience now rather than what I was thinking I was going to offer about Artists.

    Pushing beyond comfort zones can be exhilarating, especially if you’re in a place where you’re mostly ready to take the leap. Those who are aware that they’re dwelling in the comfort of safe zones can prepare to step, run or fly beyond them if stagnation or impotence threatens to render their lives small.

    Sometimes ‘life happens’ and you’re shoved out of your comfort zone without your permission. This can be shattering or traumatic – or the best thing that could ever happen to you. If nothing else, it wakes you up and forces you to ‘do something’, for sitting paralyzed is seldom an option.

    I guess I’m wondering what obligation we have as human beings towards each other to ensure that our need to leap beyond what may feel suffocating does not fragment the experience, day or life of another.

    Similarly, those with psychic and intuitive abilities generally honour an unspoken rule that you don’t share significant information you can ‘read’ or ‘detect’ about others just because you ‘know’ it. Sometimes people need time to see a Truth because they’re not ready to deal with it yet. Or they need to discover it on their own in their own time. Jarring them off their path with information they were not expecting from an unexpected or unwelcomed source can be detrimental in many ways.

    On the other hand, perhaps some people are destined to live out loud in ways that shake others from their day-to-day auto-existence so that they may wake up and truly engage with thoughts and feelings they’ve learned to render invisible over time.

    I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. Maybe I’m wondering about personal responsibility when travelling beyond your own comfort zones trespasses the personal boundaries of others?

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