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We all have a comfort zone and we're told, at least occasionally, we need to break out of it if we are to achieve our potential. 

Whether that's mountain climbing, moving to a new country or walking over hot fiery coals – or, for that matter, stand-up comedy, performance art or skydiving – getting out of the safety of everyday life and using elevated stress levels to attain success is a formula that those who do it for a living swear by.

A comfort zone is succinctly defined by American writer Judith M. Bardwick in her book Danger in the Comfort Zone as "a behavioural state where a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position", and academic Andrew Jarden says breaking out of that state can be a good thing. 

Jarden, head of research at the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute; and former senior lecturer in psychology at the Auckland University of Technology, says: "There is a link between failure and wellbeing known as 'positive failure' - essentially, [considering] the good things that can come from failure. Does it give you strength or build character? It can give you purpose, it's about personal growth and development.  

"[Positive failure is] good for you because it means you're pushing boundaries. If you're not failing [or at risk of failing], you're not really out of your comfort zone. 

"Also, most people don't like boredom. It's good to push ourselves."

Performer Eli Joseph (stage name Victor Victorious) has been on the circuit for six years, displaying a range of artistic talents including burlesque, stilt walking and aerial acrobatics. Currently studying circus full time, he's called on to try new things like ventriloquism, regularly pushing himself out of his comfort zone and throughout his career he's used failure as a tool.

"Without failure, there's no satisfaction in our successes. The harder I've had to work at learning movements or choreography, the more I enjoy being able to complete them, particularly when I'm upside down or dangling at heights. I take no pleasure or satisfaction in failure, it can hurt, it can be embarrassing, but every time I fail in a task, I'm one step closer to succeeding." 

As well as the ability to conceptualise failure, motivation is also a key aspect. For comedian, environmental scientist and early childhood educator, Lee Ray, it's the feeling of triumph that keeps her going.  

"Stand-up comedy is the most terrifying thing I do [...] I always spend the time leading into being on stage wondering how the hell I got myself into this situation and trying to think of legit ways that I can possibly get out of it

"When you get off stage after a good show, the payoff for all of the nerves and terror is the euphoric release of all of those feel-good chemicals in your brain. 'Oh yeah, I remember why, that feels great'. I'm sure it is addictive."

Riki Kees Jongenburger, a skydiving cameraman based in Nelson's Abel Tasman area, bikes, surfs, snowboards and rock climbs. He previously spent seven years as a nomad, visiting 19 countries and 32 cities and is building a residence off the grid with his partner of 10 years.  

"I think living off grid is great. It's a challenge, but I have learnt a lot of new skills [...] We have awesome friends and family who have helped us a lot.

"I guess my competitive drive pushes me to better myself [...] I come from a family of three boys so I am pretty competitive."  

While our environment, such as growing up with ambitious siblings, does shape us, Jarden suggests that it's only a fraction of our being and that we have a greater power over who we are than we realise.

"Everyone has a different recipe, but we can speculate 50 per cent of 'wellbeing' is down to genetics and the lottery of having parents who are happy and/or more likely to do things that push themselves. Forty per cent is up to the choices you make. Ten per cent is external factors, such as wealth or the country you were born in. So, most of it is actually in your control."  

Exploring your personal limits leads to new skills and a sense of accomplishment - but is everyone capable of doing so?

Jongenburger, Joseph and Ray all agree, to varying degrees, that they are extroverts and Jarden confirms that this trait, as well as being open to new things, is prevalent in those who push themselves.  

Ray herself says while she loves what her profession has taught her, "it's not for everyone though, you do need to be quite robust". 

However, given that roughly half of our social-genetic make-up is made up of free will, such as choosing loyal friends and supportive partners, Jarden additionally says people can, and should, develop themselves to take more risks.

"[It gets harder as we get older] because as we age we gain greater insight into our strengths and our values (what is important to us), and we basically get better at knowing and getting what we want and is important to us. 

"[People should] become their own experiment. Take a scientific approach to experimentation on the self. Develop the trait of curiosity in particular. 

"However, you need to factor in the risks and these need to be managed – and these need to be non-life threatening to yourself and/or others." 

Written by Janan Jay. First appeared on