Luvvie Ajayi: Can Creating Discomfort In Others Help Change The Status Quo?

Apr 27, 2018
Originally published on May 1, 2018 1:42 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Comfort Zone.

About Luvvie Ajayi's TED Talk

Speaking up — especially about topics that are difficult to discuss — can be scary but necessary. Author and blogger Luvvie Ajayi feels it's her role to push people outside their comfort zones.

About Luvvie Ajayi

Writer Luvvie Ajayi is the voice behind "Awesomely Luvvie," a humor blog that covers politics, race, gender and pop culture.

She is also the author of I'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual, and host of the podcast Rants and Randomness.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

On the show today, ideas about stepping outside your comfort zone and why it's sometimes so hard to do that - to take risks and confront fears and speak up.

Can you please introduce yourself?

LUVVIE AJAYI: Yes. My name is Luvvie Ajayi, and I'm a writer. I'm a speaker and, I say, a professional troublemaker because I'm the person who's saying what you're thinking but dared not to.

RAZ: For more than a decade, Luvvie's been writing and blogging about things that are sometimes hard to discuss - things like racism, and privilege, and why men and women are paid differently for the same job. And Luvvie feels it's her role to push people outside their comfort zones.

AJAYI: My goal is to kind of disrupt the status quo and at least point out what's absurd about the world so maybe people will be more willing to disrupt it in their area, too.

RAZ: Does speaking up and speaking out about truths ever challenge your comfort zone?

AJAYI: Oh, absolutely. Every day that I'm speaking up about truths that are hard challenges me. Those are the times - the times it is really scary is when it's most necessary.

RAZ: Luvvie spoke about her own struggles leaving her comfort zone from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

AJAYI: Now, let's talk about fear. Fear has a very concrete power of keeping us from doing and saying the things that are our purpose. I'm not going to let fear rule my life. I'm not going to let fear dictate what I do. Anything that scares me, I'm going to actively pursue it. I went skydiving. We're about to fall out the plane. I was like, I've done some stupid things in life. This is one of them.

(LAUGHTER)

AJAYI: And then we come falling down to earth, and I literally lose my breath as I see earth. And I was like, I just fell out of a perfectly good plane on purpose.

(LAUGHTER)

AJAYI: What is wrong with me? But then I looked down at the beauty, and I was like, this is the best thing I could've done. This is an amazing decision. And I think about the times when I have to speak truth. It feels like I am falling out that plane. It feels like that moment when I'm at the edge of the plane and I'm like, you shouldn't do this. But then I do it anyway because I realize I have to. Sitting at the edge of that plane and kind of staying on that plane is comfort to me. And I feel like every day that I'm speaking truth against institutions and people who are bigger than me and just forces that are more powerful than me, I feel like I'm falling out of that plane. But I realized comfort is overrated because being quiet is comfortable. Keeping things the way they've been is comfortable. And all comfort has done is maintain the status quo, so we've got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable by speaking these hard truths when they're necessary.

RAZ: I want to drill down on this a little bit, on this idea of speaking truths, right? Like, there's this famous book "How To Win Friends And Influence People" that was written in, like, the '40s. You know, and it's this best-seller. And basically, his message is like, just keep quiet, you know? Smile.

AJAYI: Ugh, no.

RAZ: And that can work. That really can work in a lot of cases, but it means that nothing changes.

AJAYI: It means nothing changes. It's how we find ourselves 60 years down the line still dealing with the same problems we had 60 years ago. It's because we insist that comfort is better than anything, when comfort typically means somebody else is somewhere suffering because of our comfort. So I completely disagree with the idea we should just shut up and just be the wallflower because when you shut up because somebody else is burning, what happens when you're burning if everybody else shuts up? Nobody calls 911 for you. We can't afford to sit around and just wait for somebody else to do what we think is important to be done.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

AJAYI: When it's time to say these hard things, I ask myself three things. One, did you mean it? Two, can you defend it? Three, did you say it with love? If the answer is yes to all three, I say it and let the chips fall. Like a time when I was asked to speak at a conference, and they wanted me to pay my way there. And then I did some research and found out the white men who spoke there got compensated and got their travel paid for. The white women who spoke there got their travel paid for. The black women who spoke there were expected to actually pay to speak there.

And I was like, what do I do? And I knew that if I spoke up about this publicly, I could face financial loss. But then I also understood that my silence serves no one. I've got to do this. I got to sit at the edge of this plane maybe for two hours, and I did. And I pressed publish, and I ran away. And I came back to a viral post. And people were being like, oh, my God, I'm so glad somebody said this. So many people have been the domino when they talk about how they've been assaulted by powerful men. And it's made millions of women join in and say me too.

(APPLAUSE)

AJAYI: People and systems count on our silence to keep us exactly where we are. And in a world that wants us to whisper, I choose to yell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You know, one of the, I mean, as we've discussed on this episode, like, we can push out of our comfort zones by forcing ourselves to try new things or finding friends who are different than us. But one of the really hard things for many people to do - one of the really - one of the things that really pushes people out of their comfort zone is talking about race.

AJAYI: Yeah. Yeah. It's - here's the thing. It's like if you break your arm and they say just act like you didn't break it, it doesn't heal the bone. You actually have to go put something on the arm to grow the bone back. We've got to look at racism like that. So the discomfort in talking about race - I feel like if you hear - it's basically the desensitizing of a topic. We have to talk about it more and more and more until everyone realizes that it's something that you have to confront. It's something that is actually moving us backwards.

RAZ: Yeah. Do you think - I always wonder - I wonder, like, do you think people are - some people are afraid to talk about race because, in some ways, it starts to challenge the way they see themselves and their place in the world?

AJAYI: Absolutely. When you have to talk about race, you actually have to acknowledge the problems. And you also have to kind of acknowledge the role that you might play it, whether subconscious or just by your existence as a member of a group that's not marginalized. So it kind of is damning to talk about it because when you understand the reality of racism and you understand the reality of privilege, then you actually have to start understanding that you're not just an innocent bystander in a system that you inherited, that every single day you're benefiting from it in some way. Because then when you walk in a room, you can be like OK, with this privilege, what am I going to do with it? See the problem is when people have the privilege and only use it to benefit themselves or people who look just like them or lived life just like them. That's when it's a problem.

RAZ: How do you begin to make people understand that getting uncomfortable is good for them? Actually getting out of that zone, whether it's talking about race or privilege or truth, is actually good for them and for everybody.

AJAYI: Well, here's the thing. Comfort kind of keeps you in the same place. Like, there's no growth. Not being comfortable with the whole idea of charting new territories and speaking up and just doing the thing that you had to talk yourself into, it's a constant practice. Every single day. It doesn't matter if you wake up scared. What happens is that, OK, what are you doing with it? Like, if every decision you're making is based on the fact that you don't want to challenge yourself or you don't want to be afraid, that's when you get really comfortable and then you don't grow.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, how do we do it? Like, what's the roadmap when we need to get out of our comfort zones but we're too afraid?

AJAYI: I'll ask, what are you most afraid of? That's the first question. Second question is, what is the worst that could happen? And then what if in 20 years you ask yourself, what if I had done that? How would my life be different? Because I think it's important to live a life that's more of a, oh, well, I tried than, oh, I wish I would have tried that.

RAZ: Luvvie Ajayi - Her book is called "I'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual." You can find her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about Comfort Zones. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.