Step Outside Your Comfort Zone and See the World

by David Von Hatten on May 1, 2005 - 10:05am

Having another ho-hum, run-of-the-mill day? Consider doing something outside the safety net of your comfort zone. Try your hand at something new, adventurous -- dare I say risky?

I’m not talking about taking part in a tandem skydiving jump. I would never jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Instead, I suggest that you get that adrenaline going by living a fuller life.

Stepping outside your comfort zone can be rewarding. It helps build your confidence, improves your outlook on life, provides new experiences that create learning and personal growth, and makes for some exciting storytelling. Like the story I’m about to tell.

Starting Somewhere

The scariest part about stepping outside your comfort zone is taking the first step, but you have to start somewhere. Mike Haynes, manager of Rehabilitation Services at the St. David’s Hospital Wheelchair Fitness Program in Austin, Texas, has sage advice for stepping outside your comfort zone: The first time you try something new, remind yourself it’s the worst you’ll ever be at it. Remember, the paraplegic athlete says, you’ll get better with each try.

Hawaiian Coastline
Hawaiian coastline

Before I met Haynes, I used to stay well within my personal boundaries of safety. I lived vicariously through sports and travel television networks, where I rappelled mountainsides and visited worldly destinations -- all from the comfort of my snack-filled living room. Was there more to life than watching it go by?

With physical assistance and emotional support from others through Haynes’ wheelchair fitness program, I’ve added more adaptive sports outside my comfort zone: water aerobics, canoeing, horseback riding (which I hadn’t done since MDA summer camp), zip line riding, challenge courses, snow skiing, whitewater rafting, water skiing and more. Doing these sports has always been an adventure, though it hasn’t always gone well. I’ve had my share of water skiing mishaps, tipped canoes, and partially submerged whitewater rafts —- especially scary since I don’t know how to swim.

To be clear, if participating in sports was outside my comfort zone, water sports were in another galaxy far, far away. In the back of my mind, however, I knew one day I’d be asked to venture out into the water again. Then it happened.

Last year my wife, Kathy, asked me if I wanted to go to Hawaii for vacation.

I thought, "Isn’t that a chain of tiny islands? And aren’t islands surrounded by that wet stuff called seawater?"

I crossed my fingers, opened an atlas, and discovered that Hawaii and its islands were indeed in the middle of the Pacific —- as in ocean. While I had always dreamed of going to Hawaii, the Polynesian paradise known for its picturesque beaches, I still felt some hesitation when I said, "Sure, honey."

I was about to step outside my comfort zone.

Zone 1: Getting There

A flight to Hawaii can be an all-day adventure. With travel time from Austin to Honolulu at just over 10½ hours with one stop in Dallas, it was outside my comfort zone for a few reasons.

View of the Hawaiin Islands from   the air.
View of the Hawaiian Islands from the air.

For one, it can be hard to sit for a period of time in a seat not designed for me without being able to shift my weight to relieve pressure. For comfort, be sure to take your wheelchair cushion off your chair and use it on the plane. Also, remember to elevate your feet from time to time during the flight to avoid swelling.

Another issue to contend with on a flight of this length is bathroom breaks. When traveling, arrange your flights with at least one stop so you can deplane and use an airport bathroom.

If that’s not possible, or if you still need a bathroom break in-flight, you’re in luck. Most major carriers use their largest planes for long flights such as those to Hawaii. That means slightly larger restrooms, and an available aisle chair. Flight attendants typically are accommodating in helping passengers transfer to an aisle chair as well.

Zone 2: Enjoying the Beaches

Given the choice, I like to stay in my wheelchair wherever I go — the barbershop, movie theater, sporting events — because it’s more comfortable than most seats. The problem, however, is that sandy beaches eat wheelchairs for breakfast.

David Von Hatten in a beach   wheelchair.
David Von Hatten in a beach wheelchair

Pushing or being pushed through the sand is next to impossible, too. Still, I longed to feel the sun-baked sand between my toes.

Fortunately, Hawaii’s Department of Parks and Recreation provides Landeez All-Terrain wheelchairs free of charge at many of its beach parks. Though it meant getting out of my wheelchair and into the uncertain feeling of another, I had to step outside my comfort zone to take in the beautiful wheelchair-friendly beach parks such as Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve.

The beach was wonderful and the all-terrain chair comfortable.

Zone 3: Snorkeling (Part 1)

Hanauma Bay in Oahu is known for its pristine marine ecosystem, making it perfect for snorkeling.

Recall my aversion to water sports? Kathy did, too, but was nevertheless determined to have me give snorkeling a try. She began warming me up to the idea months before our trip. She persisted while we baked in the Polynesian summer sun.

This was way out there on the fringes of my comfort zone, but I went for it because of her support.

Kathy wheeled me out to the water’s edge and with the help of a beachgoer transferred my water-fearing body into the salty, shallow tide. She sat beside me, and we slowly inched our way into the cool, clear water. Kathy helped me secure my snorkeling mask, and we talked for a few minutes about how to breathe with the snorkel, what our signal would be to come up out of the water.

The tide was fairly calm, but I had concerns.

What if water splashes over my head and into my snorkel? "Blow the water out," she said.

Kathy Von Hatten and David                        snorkeling in the Hawaiin islands.
Kathy and David Von Hatten snorkeling in the Hawaiian Islands

What if my mask lets water in? "Put some spit around the rim to seal it," she responded.

What if I don’t like snorkeling? "What if you do?" she said. She was the calm voice of reason.

"Here we go," she said, as she held onto me, guiding me through the water’s surface, face down. Here’s what I failed to tell her: I hate being face down in the water.

This raced through my mind while I saw one fish, some coral and rocks. I didn’t like this at all. I was tense, nervous and breathing rapidly. I signaled her and we came up. I had snorkeled all of eight seconds. Can we go home now?

"Let’s give it one more try," Kathy said. We talked more about it and she asked me to take deep breaths and concentrate on the view underwater.

We tried again. This time we were under water for a few minutes. I began to enjoy the fish and coral, but became nervous again and signaled her.

Because we were snorkeling over environmentally sensitive coral, however, she couldn’t stand on it to bring me up. I panicked further, spit out my snorkel, tried to come up for air and instead tasted seawater. After a few more seconds of panic, we cleared the coral and came up.

Though Kathy took every measure to ensure my safety, snorkeling wasn’t for me, or so I thought. We headed for shore where I seriously considered moving to a land-locked state.

Zone 4: Maui by Helicopter

A few days later we boarded a plane for a short flight to Maui. Among other adventures here, we planned to take a helicopter tour of the island. Though I have a fear of heights because I get a feeling of falling over and a dizzy sensation, I was ready to step outside my comfort zone again.

Maui has a diverse landscape: dormant volcanoes, lava flows, tropical rainforests and valleys of cascading waterfalls. The wonder of it all is that 75 percent of it is inaccessible by roads.

David and Kathy getting ready to   board a helicopter to Maui.
David and Kathy getting ready to board a helicopter to Maui.

Fortunately there are places like Sunshine Helicopters, which has a lift specifically designed for those in wheelchairs. The lift made it easy to get into the helicopter, especially important since I’m not comfortable being lifted by people who aren’t trained to do so.

Our pilot took us to the eastern volcano of Haleakala, which rises 12,000 feet above sea level. It’s daunting to imagine that we were more than three miles above the Pacific.

We also ventured out to many a waterfall, some with 400-foot drops. It was the most spectacular view I’ve ever seen.

Only at a few points during the 50-minute tour of Maui did I feel queasy. Our pilot made a handful of turns during which the helicopter banked enough to put us on our side. If the view hadn’t been breathtaking, I would have tossed my Polynesian cookies.

Zone 5: Sea Kayaking

Kathy was intent on our going kayaking in Maui. I said I’d try it if we could find a company that had experience in taking people with disabilities out in the water. She found one such company, Ron Bass’ Maui Sea.

Bass is a licensed practical nurse, physical education teacher and certified disabled ski instructor. Since 1988, he’s led Maui kayaking tours with at-risk youth, Special Olympians and physically challenged paddlers.

Kathy and David                        kayaking in the Pacific ocean.
Kathy and David kayaking in Maui.

Via e-mail prior to the trip, Bass asked me about my balance, grip, abdominal strength and comfort level in the water. Once we were there, he suggested a perfect spot based upon the tides and wind -- the reef at Oluwalu. It was ideal for my first time out in a sea kayak.

Bass and Kathy transferred me to a kayak, then made a few adjustments to the seat, lateral support system, personal flotation device, and we were off. He and I shared a kayak, while Kathy had one to herself.

It took me a few minutes to feel safe while sitting on a constantly rocking craft that’s at the tide’s mercy. That’s part of being outside one’s comfort zone. I reminded myself that I wasn’t in my perfectly stable wheelchair. This was sea kayaking in Hawaii, where the water was clear, the waves gentle and the experience exhilarating.

Having Bass paddling our craft, and Kathy right beside me for emotional support, was reassuring. We saw tropical fish, sea turtles and colorful coral reefs as we made our way about 100 yards from shore. As I grew more confident in my ability to stay in the boat, I periodically tried my hand at paddling, further straying from my comfort zone.

During our hour in the kayak, the back support portion of my seating system began to falter. The result: I slowly began to ease into a reclining position. Bass jumped out of the kayak to secure the seatback while Kathy kept me safely in the craft. I focused on not panicking while holding on to the boat. Part of stepping outside your comfort zone is understanding that challenges are bound to come along. Be scared if you must, but face them, accept them and live stronger through them.

Another challenge was yet to come.

David and Kathy after kayaking in   Maui.
David and Kathy after kayaking in Maui

As we ventured away from land perhaps 200 yards now, the tide grew stronger. Bass kept our boat parallel to the waves and paddled accordingly to counterbalance the tide’s push. He instructed Kathy how to "ride" a wave by heading toward it, turning just in time to feel the ocean’s surge behind her and paddling hard to stay in command. She grinned ear-to-ear as she handled it beautifully.

Now it was our turn.

Bass guided our kayak toward the infinite seaward horizon, spied on the waves, and turned the craft in time for us to feel powerful waves push us inland. I held on to the boat as hard as I could and was taken by how quickly we glided across the water.

I was like a kid now. Let’s do it again, I said. And so we did it a few more times, even crashing bow-first into waves that dumped cool, clear water onto my lap as we headed out to find a wave to ride. The experience was thrilling.

Zone 6: Snorkeling (Part 2)

After kayaking, I was confident and ready to try snorkeling again, this time with two people at my side.

Bass and Kathy slipped me into the water near the shore’s edge. He acclimated me to the water by having me concentrate on floating face up as we drifted along the water. I also focused on positive imagery: this time snorkeling wasn’t going to get the best of me.

Soon Bass had me face down in the water with a mask and snorkel. He and Kathy guided me along a few minutes at a time. The tide wasn’t a concern in the cove we were in, which helped. I warmed up to the feeling quickly as I took in the coral, colorful fish and other sea life.

Before I knew it nearly an hour had passed and it was time to leave. Mike Haynes was right. The first time you try something, it’s the worst you’ll ever be at it. I had definitely improved.

Lessons from the Zone

Haynes reminds each athlete he works with that today is the first day of the rest of your life. His point can be carried across all aspects of life. Today, you can make a change in your life that may alter the way you live for the better.

Kathy and David                        on the beach in Waikiki.
Kathy and David on the beach in Waikiki.

Step outside your comfort zone by exercising, trying a new sport, dating, going to college or getting a job. Take small steps, keep goals realistic and gain the confidence you need to build upon your successes. I’ve learned more about myself each time I cross that line.

Sometimes I will succeed. Sometimes I will fail. Either way, I’ve lived more completely. This is the journey called life.

David Von Hatten is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas, who has spinal muscular atrophy.


Access Hawaii's beaches

All-terrain wheelchairs are available at no cost through the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Go to, visit these locations or call for reservations:

Ala Moana Regional Park
1201 Ala Moana
Diamond Head and Ewa food concessions

Fort DeRussy Beach
Off Kalia Road
(808) 949-8952

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
100 Hanauma Bay Road
(808) 396-4229

Kailua Beach Park
526 Kawailoa Road
(808) 266-2099

Kualoa Regional Park
Campsite A
49-479 Kamehameha Highway
(808) 237-8525

Pokai Bay Beach Park
Waianae Army Recreation Center
(808) 696-6783, ext. 4

Ron Bass’ Maui Sea Kayaking
(808) 572-6299

Sans Souci Beach Park
2863 Kalakaua Ave.
(808) 924-7778

You don't have to go to Hawaii...

There are many ways to step into a new zone. Here’s a short list:

  • Meet new people

  • Attend college

  • Learn a new skill

  • Travel

  • Take swimming lessons

  • Start a rock band

  • Try adaptive bowling

  • Go camping

  • Discover your green thumb

  • Visit people in a retirement home

  • Enter a story-writing contest

  • Learn a new recipe, or create your own

  • Marry the love of your life

  • Learn to speak in public

  • Play laser tag

  • Be a social or political activist

  • Get a part-time job

  • Discover your creative side through arts and crafts

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