Many people in the rationalist community like to get better at doing things they are averse to, but don’t think should be aversive. CFAR (Center For Applied Rationality) made a technique for it. It’s called CoZE (Comfort Zone Expansion). CoZE seems super useful, and I’m always happy to join in when a group is pushing the edge of their comfort zone. I’ve noticed a couple different mindsets around comfort zone expansion. I will call them goal mindset and process mindset.
Goal Mindset: The person knows expanding their comfort zone is a good idea, they want to have the results of doing so, but comfort zone expansion is an aversive subject in itself. So both the thing they want to become less averse to and the process of expanding their comfort zone are aversive.
Process Mindset: The person knows expanding their comfort zone is a good idea and they’ve attached the feeling of successful change to the process of comfort zone expansion. In this mindset, each individual thing people work on can still be aversive, but the process of comfort zone expansion is exciting.
I suspect the mindset a person has depends on the number of successful aversive experiences vs the number of unsuccessful aversive experiences they’ve had. Recent experiences or more extreme experiences are probably given greater significance.
I definitely think it’s possible to shift someone from the 1st mindset to the 2nd mindset. I think the best way to do this is to be intentionally put into aversive experiences that are framed correctly and are built to create success.
I made a shift from goal mindset to process mindset in my teens by going to and working for a wilderness school. The instructors took time to find the edges of my comfort zone, got me excited about going over the edge, and brought me back into my comfort zone in a way that made the experience a success in my own mind. This included pushing my physical limits with survival challenges, my people interaction limits through teaching and interacting with student’s parents, and my emotional limits through practice of expressing emotion. I think my own adoption of process mindset came from more intense experiences that ended successfully, making future small CoZE experiences much easier. Here I’ll outline the steps I think necessary for the kinds of experiences that produce a shift from goal mindset to process mindset. I will call these Expansion Projects.
Steps for Expansion Projects:
Step 1: Choose a category you want to work on.
Things you might want to work on include getting more comfortable with dancing, spiders, introspection, physical discomfort, silence in social situations, etc. You can choose this yourself, take ideas from others, ask someone you trust to choose a thing for you. It should be something you can commit to doing and will push the limits of your capabilities in whatever area(s) you are expanding.
In my example I agreed to go on a 24 hour survival solo.
Step 2:Choose someone you trust to help you.
Ideally this is someone who knows you well and has a good idea of where your boundaries are. They should be able to take the matter seriously and be willing to push your limits. You also need to be OK with them pushing your limits.
In my example, this was my mentors in wilderness survival and education.
Step 3: Discuss your Expansion Project with them and agree on the conditions.
I think it helps here to set strict conditions of the experience and to commit to ending the experience if you break those conditions. So if you commit to not relying on a particular thing in a situation, relying on that thing ends the experience.
In preparation for my survival solo, I discussed with my mentor what I would bring along. I also made goals for things I would work on within the solo and introspective goals. It was clear that if I left the experience and returned early for any reason the experience would be over.
Step 4: Beginning the Experience
Have the person helping you mark the beginning of the experience, remind you of your commitment to doing the thing, and recognize the difficulty in a positive and serious way. Maybe this is a small ritual or short exchange of words. Something that is meaningful to you.
Some words were said before setting out. The tone was serious, there was recognition difficulty and a reminder of the commitments made.
Step 5: Go through the experience
Spending 24 hours alone in the woods was a really good experience. I don’t think just spending 24 hours in the woods would amount to much. I could spend 24 hours in the woods uncomfortable with no supplies and return fine having learned very little, but having the experience framed as a tool to learn things about survival and things about myself (with an emphasis on challenge and commitment) made the experience feel much more powerful.
Step 6: Ending the Experience
The person helping you greets you after the experience, recognizes your achievement, gives you food/emotional support, and helps you reflect and process the experience. I would also recommend spending some time alone reflecting on the experience and what you got from it.
If you are comfortable doing so, I’d recommend talking about the experience in front of some people. This can help because they will recognize your achievement (socially reinforcing the positiveness) and make you better at talking about aversive things and becoming less averse to them.
Upon return, those of us who went on solos were greeted with water, food, and an audience to relay our experience to. There was also more time to introspect on the experience and talk one on one with mentors.
Keeping the mindset:
Being framed as it was, I was ready for more such experiences as soon as I was done. While the framing was serious, the successful growth experienced made me want more. The excitement generated by this kind of experience made me excited about challenging myself in the future. I think staying excited about the doing things that are hard and out of your comfort zone is the most important thing for process mindset. Go forth and challenge yourself!