Personal Writing

The ouch zone of spring

One of my favorite things about spring is that, seemingly overnight, we move from the monotonous, dead, gray season of late winter to an abundance of life: lilacs, tulips, daffodils and lily of the valley arrive in the blink of an eye. Naked tree limbs are suddenly laden with flourishing leaves and delicate blossoms. The birds must fly all night and land as the sun comes up, as if they never went south for the winter. New animal babies are running around in the fields. The known cold, ice and wind of winter gives way to what felt an impossibility just days before, and everywhere you look, life abounds.

When my son Quinn was in elementary school, he was part of a gifted and talented program. The teacher used a phrase that made me laugh the first time he told me about it, but it has always stuck with me: You need to get into your ouch zone.

The ouch zone is the intellectual place where you are working outside what is comfortable and known, past where you already have expertise or mastery. The ouch zone is where learning, growth and innovation occurs. It’s also where failure can and likely will happen. True ouch zone work is moving into uncharted territory—boldly going where no [wo]man has gone before. Or at least going where you haven’t gone before.

Most people work pretty diligently to avoid the ouch zone. In his article, “The Big Reason Why Some People Are Terrified Of Change (While Others Love It),” Forbes contributor Mark Murphy notes, “38% of people like to leave their comfort zone…By contrast, there’s the other 62% of people who either don’t like to leave their comfort zone or do so only occasionally. These folks are more likely to have histories and personalities that skew their interpretation of the change more negatively.”

I love being in my ouch zone.

At least I think I do. I certainly consider myself a risk taker…to a point.

I’m not a gambler by any stretch of the imagination; I’m not a physical daredevil either. I don’t need to jump out of airplanes, swim with sharks, run with the bulls…

But I do need to challenge my brain, to stretch beyond what I can articulate in the moment. My favorite moments of my job are when I’m in conversation about something I’ve never done before—something involving the arts but in combination with a seemingly disparate element or in an area that will allow me to learn a new skill set, vocabulary or program, to make new connections and build new relationships.

I absolutely need to juggle a number of objects, but they don’t all have to be balls. In fact, I would prefer that they not be. My idea of an excellent professional life is to keep the equivalent of a handkerchief, a rubber ball, a bowling pin and a glass vase continuously rotating and up in the air with the addition of the occasional chipmunk who pops in and out. Those are all objects that any decent juggler should be able to manage (minus the chipmunk), but the unusual combination of weight, size and shape (and said intermittent chipmunk) means there’s no way to get comfortable and go into auto pilot. The juggler has to remain acutely present and thinking one step ahead of the next object about to land in her dominant hand while keeping her peripheral vision on high alert for that rambunctious chipmunk.

I guess it’s more accurate to say I love being in my ouch zone with some substantial bumper lanes to keep me safe and mitigate absolute failure. I mean, I’m not interested in juggling burning torches or running chainsaws.

The article above takes its findings from an online quiz. I took it and got this answer:

I pretty wholeheartedly agree with that assessment.

But there’s an important caveat to my experience that is the reason I couldn’t sleep and am up so early this morning writing about this:

I’m just about to start my 11th year as President & CEO of The Arts Partnership. Eleven years is a tremendously long time to run the same nonprofit. The average length for a CEO/ED is five to six years, according to research discussed here and in Nonprofit Quarterly. Doesn’t that bely everything I have just written about? Doesn’t that disprove that I am comfortable in my ouch zone?

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I occasionally chafe at the sameness of my job, the predictability of it. I sometimes wish I were more of a risk taker and had the courage to venture out further into the great unknown. I feel some disappointment in myself that I’ve gotten so comfortable with the stability of a paycheck. It’s why Personal Systems Disruption work and this blog has been so important to me: it has brought a new element to my juggling act that has helped keep my life from feeling too staid.

But from almost the very beginning of my time at The Arts Partnership, I’ve been able shape and mold the position to evolve as my interest, expertise and curiosity has expanded. I’ve gotten to stretch the boundaries of what people (and I) thought this job could be. Yes, there are certain elements that are relatively solid: annual programs, general geographic boundaries, working with and for the Board of Directors. But the mission statement, cultivating community through the arts, is broad enough that it offers all kinds of opportunities that often appear on the horizon, seemingly out of nowhere.

I believe there are growing levels of Ouch Zone opportunities that are only possible because of my long tenure with this organization, my years of built relationships and my proven success across many disparate platforms, sectors and avenues. I’ve built trust with my constituents and investors that affords me the opportunity to think and act more expansively, to run the risk of failure in pursuit of something larger and more meaningful to the mission.

The title and geographic location of the job might be static, but the work from my desk is ever-evolving. Every single time I think I’ve “‘maxed out’ my potential,” a new idea, opportunity or person has crossed my path and piqued my curiosity in a whole new way.

Springtime is Mother Nature getting into her ouch zone. She’s breaking away from what is known and trying out fantastical new ideas. She’s throwing color, scents, sounds and tastes at us at an almost dizzying speed. Sometimes she moves too quickly and tender buds are frozen in an early spring snowstorm. Other times, she puts it all on the line, and the entire lush bounty arrives, survives and thrives weeks early.

There are numerous potential opportunities at my doorstep this spring, too. I look forward to them with tremendous excitement, and I anticipate the possibility for success and failure, and learning from those failures, with great anticipation.

If you are in the 62% camp who avoids and/or dislikes change, consider the actual facts around an upcoming change and then observe your interpretation of what that change could mean. You might be surprised to discover that it’s not the change that alarms you, it’s what you anticipate will come of it that does. What if a tree never allowed the leaves to burst forth for fear of damaging the branches? What if a mother duck refused to sit on her eggs in dread of the many predators waiting for her ducklings to hatch?

Look around at all the beauty that can only come because winter gives way to spring. Don’t live in winter; embrace the new that comes with letting go of the old. Get into your ouch zone and see where it takes you.

Dayna Del Val is on a mission to help others (re)discover the spark they were born with through her blog and newsletter, her professional talks and the (re)Discover Your Spark retreats she leads. Dayna works with people to help them not just identify and articulate their dreams but to develop a framework to get going on the pursuit of those dreams—today, in the next few months and for the years ahead. She's at the intersection of remarkable and so, so ordinary, but she knows that pretty much everyone else is, too. She's excited to be sharing this extraordinary journey with you.


  • Bonnie Bowman

    And I alone know where the lamb picture was taken, and the terrific life altering ouch that it represents by virtue of where the picture is taken. She got hit with an ouch of intensely personal and “disruptive” proportions, and she recovered. Recovers The lamb represents birth and new and change, and also represents difficult, heart breaking and permanent. All of it is true, and if you can come out of it, yes, you are still juggling.

    The lamb also represents someone who told her to just get in a boat and get going. The lamb represents now doing things that were advised that made her giggle at the absurbity of it; think wearing a hard hat. Yes, the lamb you see, and all lambs, are fresh and new and hop around and are full of life. That particular lamb is about 600 feet from a gaping hole in the ground that consumed everything she knew she could count on, during a long bleak winter. Ouch didn’t quite cover that experience. That ouch lives on.

    So, yes to spring, and change, and rebirth and I guess hopping around in a meadow full of lush new grass. Hop on. Juggle forth.

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