Musicians in the early 1990s began describing Austin, the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World,” as a “velvet rut.”
In a town populated with music lovers, seats were easy to fill and shows quick to sell out. Talented musicians enjoyed reliable popularity, success, and income without having to work too hard to keep it.
But in a world where anything you do is lauded, there is little motivation or need to push boundaries and take risks. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Musicians would land in Austin and discover a world where it was always summertime, and the livin’ was always easy.
Thus the velvet rut. It’s comfy. It’s cozy. And it’s awfully hard to escape.
This doesn’t sound all that bad on the surface. Think about our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors suddenly walking into a place where restaurants were on every corner. Not having to scrounge and scrabble about for survival sounds an awful lot like what we’re all striving for.
But let’s take a step back and think about what is lost when we stop having to work for our gains.
With no problems presented, no solutions have to be searched for. There is no need for divergent thinking, new approaches, or inventions. Innovation is lost—an extraneous limb no longer needed for an evolutionary advantage. And with no innovation, creativity becomes obsolete.
This truth plays out in the physical world, too. It’s only by pushing our boundaries—running a little faster, hiking a little longer, trying a new stunt on a skateboard, or a new spin on ice skates—that our muscles will grow and our endurance and abilities improve.
The bad news is that our brains are also wired for a slight stress response to the unknown. Our comfort zones—those velvet ditches of delight—are safe. Outside them, who knows what dangers lurk?
So we live our lives suspended in this tension between the known and unknown, able and unable, stagnation and innovation.
One is comfortable, but the other is the only way forward.
This is why Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Because, as it turns out, those a**holes who always avow that growth only happens outside our comfort zones were right all along.
But man, that sucks. Life is hard enough as it is. Now we have to willingly give up the parts that are comfortable, easy, and successful?
Well, yes. Sometimes.
We have to roll out of bed every day, no matter how cozy we are, to get down to the business of living. But we don’t have to throw out the bed.
My husband has an uncanny level of what I call “get-by-ed-ness.” He’s a social chameleon—able to adapt to any situation, to converse with anyone, and think of creative solutions to anything.
He was also a refugee as a child. His entire childhood was challenge.
He wants our kids to grow up with what he calls “the hunger,” this drive to survive and adapt and achieve success despite adversity. And while I agree, we’ve got to figure out a way to accomplish that without becoming refugees.
So, maybe the band does have to leave the velvet rut to reignite their creative spark, to challenge themselves to grow and evolve. And maybe it’s also okay to make it a day trip (a week or two tops). Maybe it’s okay to balance challenge with a little comfort and a little ease.
The key is to not hunker down and stay.
Close your eyes and feel around your life. Do you ever feel stuck? Do you think about your comfortable life, your beautiful family, your lovely accolades and accomplishments that you’ve achieved over the years and still feel dissatisfied?
It may just be a sign of your subconscious clamoring for newness. For challenge. For discomfort. And even for fear. And that’s okay. That’s what we are made for.
We can challenge ourselves to get a little uncomfortable. A little stressed. A little scared. Do something new. Something that is hard. Something we have to work at. Something that will, at last, give us a spark of inspiration.
It may be as easy as writing in a new café instead of the comfort of the plush purple chair at home (*cough-me right now-cough*). It may be starting that side hustle we’ve been mulling over. Or signing up for a race. Hiking a new mountain. Learning a new skill. Going for a higher position at work. Taking up yoga. Or even moving across the world.
We can give our brains a scary, uncomfortable, wonderful treat, and tiptoe out of that velvet rut we’ve been living in. We don’t have to leave it for good—I’m not throwing my kids out of the house in the name of learning adversity. I might just stop trying to lawn mow life’s obstacles for them.
Small forays out of our comfort zone, out of the rut, will turn our brains on, inspire us, awaken our creativity, expand our horizons, and enrich our life.
As John Shedd famously tells us, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”