Embrace Discomfort

Over time, I’ve learned that one of the most important things you can do to advance your own life is to become comfortable with discomfort. Discomfort is essential to personal progress, growth, and development.

So important is discomfort to personal development, that there’s even an educational term for that uncomfortable place where learning happens: the zone of proximal development.

Educators describe it as the difference between what a learner can do without help and what she can do with help.

In my first book, Courage Goes To Work, I included a chapter titled Modulating Comfort which explained the importance of modulating between comfort and discomfort as a way to inspire performance improvement.

For example, think back to when you were a kid. Before you jumped off the intimidating high diving board, you likely jumped off the low board hundreds of time. Once you mastered the low board it was no longer thrilling. Maybe it had even become boring. The more boring it got, the more the scary high diving board started to become the focus of your attention. It represented a new and scary challenge.

The best way to overcome the boredom that had set in on the low board was to scale up the high board ladder. As you edged out toward the end of the board, you became more and more uncomfortable, culminating with you hurling yourself off the high dive.

There’s another area where the importance of discomfort applies: communication.

In her terrific new book, The Discomfort Zone, Marcia Reynolds masterfully coaches the reader about how to have conversations that disrupt people’s thinking so they can embrace discomfort and think in more imaginative ways.

She writes, “For true shifts in thinking and behavior to occur, you must be willing to challenge a person’s beliefs, interrupt his patterns, and short-circuit the conviction to his logic even when it feels uncomfortable. This is a Discomfort Zone conversation.”

In reading The Discomfort Zone, I was reminded of a wonderful quote attributed to Gandhi: “The truth only hurts if it should.”

Reynolds explains that uncomfortable conversations often result in discoveries that are at first startling and disruptive. The truths expressed in The Discomfort Zone can disrupt a person’s sense of identity, or dislodge a conviction, or upset a belief. But the temporary pain gives way to new clarity, insight, and growth.

Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, the CEO of IBM, captured the importance of embracing discomfort when she said, “Growth and comfort do not coexist.” If you want to grow, progress, and evolve, you’ve got to be willing to embrace discomfort.

Bill Treasurer's latest book, Leaders Open Doors (ASTD Press, 2014), focuses on how leaders create growth through opportunity and includes a chapter titled Purposeful Discomfort. Read more of Bill’s take on purposeful discomfort in his article How Leaders Encourage Growth Through Discomfort.


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