Discomfort Is Your Compass

It wasn’t long ago that I was catching a train to come home, and as I entered the train station, I quickly located my track and train. I ran to catch it, but there wasn’t enough time for me to get to the First Class car (it was a few cars ahead), so I stepped into the Second Class car. Keep in mind, the cars are separated in that you can’t go from car to car from inside. The only way to go to a different car is to exit the car and enter the other car while at a stop. If I wanted, I could have come out of the car at the next station/s and boarded the First Class car, but I chose not to. I feared if I stepped out at the stop, I might not have enough time to board it again, even though I could have moved up at least a couple of cars per stop to eventually make it to the First Class car. Instead, I chickened out and became comfortable in that space (even though I wasn’t thrilled to be there). In other words, I settled. I am sure this example rings a bell and reminds you of similar situations in your life when you became comfortable, even though you felt somewhat frustrated with the experience, but you nevertheless chose to settle for less (for whatever reason).

Most of us learn early in life to not take risks. We are trained to be that way by well-meaning people who want to see us “succeed”. Ironically, parents “protect” their kids by inadvertently hindering their growth. They constantly provide for them without making them work for or appreciate it, but is that in the kid’s best interest? Then they wonder why the kids turned out the way they do.

Society conditions us to seek out comfort and stability in our work and lives. Safety/security is reinforced implicitly and is pervasive everywhere, be it in education, in jobs we take, or in the social circles we keep.

Asking questions and taking risks is discouraged. It is perceived as: if you’re asking questions, then there must be something wrong with you. As a boy, Einstein was often told to leave class because he used to pester his teachers with questions. We are punished when we simply question things (out of our own curiosities), never mind when those questions challenge the status quo. Most teachers in formal schools don’t like being questioned because they either don’t know how to respond, or it makes them question their own line of thinking (beliefs). The idea that they might possibly be wrong can be a difficult pill to swallow for their oversized ego, but it doesn’t have to be that way. That happens when they are trained to teach a certain way without going into why/how something might be true. For instance, they might tell you that the value of π (Pi) is 3.14 (for use in a problem), but they might not be familiar with the underpinnings of Pi as to why we truly need it, how it came to be, etc. We go to schools to seek answers when we should be going there to learn to ask the right questions. That should be the goal of formal education, but I digress.

When we talk, we talk to confirm our own biases rather than looking to be disproven or challenged by others. When others share an alternate view, we are quick to defend ourselves, but is that keeping an open mind? It’s easy to be comfortable with one’s own views and to keep holding to that and finding opportunities to reaffirm them, but we forget that learning is the goal, whilst keeping ourselves detached to the ideas. There is nothing wrong with having opinions as long as you are open to changing them.

We become slaves to our process. We do not want to deviate from the process for good reason — because it works. Just because something works isn’t a good enough reason for us to keep doing things that way. There is nothing wrong with sticking to a process as long as you’re continuously refining it. It shouldn’t be static. We don’t question things anymore because we assume that it’s the best way to do things based on history.

All this to say, how much we grow in life depends on the amount of discomfort we are willing to experience in our lives.

Before we talk about how to make discomfort our true compass, let’s first understand some of the reasons we seek comfort.

It’s easy to keep doing things the same rather than to change. We don’t want things to change because we are creatures of habit. Making any change requires us to think, and thinking is hard so we naturally avoid it.

We seek out comfort because Resistance wants us to play it safe. Like our parents, it wants to “protect” us and to not get rejected, which is a side effect from doing anything worthwhile.

If it ain’t broken, why fix it? This is why we keep doing things the same way until they stop working, at which point we are compelled to find a new way. We become slaves to our process. When I find a new recipe for a dish that works, I use that recipe for days (if not weeks). I settle for what works rather than trying out new things and using my creative energies to come up with my own recipes. The problem with settling is that we become stifled and don’t make room to grow. We limit our growth by stopping our learning.

As Joseph Ratzinger has aptly said:

The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.

Every thing in our life promotes or hinders growth; every time we choose safety, we reinforce fear. As size of the goldfish is determined by the fish bowl, so do the environments in which we live, work, and play. They are all proverbial fish bowls that control our growth.

The point is there is no growth without discomfort (as obvious as it sounds). Change by its nature requires constant discomfort. Only that will make us live to our potential (and then some). The goal of life isn’t to seek comfort but greatness. Here is what I wrote in an earlier draft:

Stop seeking comfort by way of job security or stability. The goal of life isn’t to seek comfort [and to “retire” early], but to make discomfort your true compass. That is the only way to grow. You cannot be comfortable and grow at the same time. It doesn’t work that way. You have to push yourself.

We can only reach our potential by engaging in discomfort. The greatest risk in life is not taking one. T. S. Eliot has said:

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

Here are some ways of seeking out discomfort in our everyday life:

We must give ourselves permission to fail by trying out new things. Unless we do that, we will never come up with anything original. For this reason, organizations have R&D departments where they give themselves the space to try out new things and fail in private. They know it’s the only way they can come up with something truly innovative. We, as individuals, have no such thing in our lives. Why? How else do we grow?

Don’t let Resistance beat you. Raise your hand to ask the question in a public forum. Go and say hi to the attractive stranger across the room. Take a different route home from work. Cook new recipes, and learn new things that take you out of your comfort zone. Do something that scares you (or challenges you) every week. Get out of your comfort zone. Do different things and do familiar things differently. Fall out of routine. Ask yourself when was the last time you did something for the first time. Maybe travel more to see familiar things from a different lens. Question the status quo. Avoid accepting things simply because that’s how they have always been done.

David Bowie on stepping out of your comfort zone:

The other thing I would say is that if you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. When you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.

Pay no heed to your irrational mind. Avoid letting your emotions get the better of you. That means you sit down and do the work sincerely. Learn to exercise your will to do the things you want. For instance, if you’re having trouble waking up early (as I did before), then simply decide to change it. The point is if you believe something to be true, there should be no reason to not do it, period. You use your will to reconcile that gap and start doing things without relying on habits as a crutch.

When the kids are having a tough time in school, it’s easy for parents to console them and to make things easy for them. There is nothing wrong with guiding kids, but we need to give them the freedom and space to lead themselves; ditto for those leading others in organizations. The problem is as parents we take responsibility for our kids in many ways, which absolves the kids from taking those responsibilities. Then we are the first to say they aren’t responsible, but we forget we are teaching them that by virtue of who we are. We have chosen to make the kids’ challenges our own so they don’t have to work on overcoming them anymore. Let’s teach them how to catch a fish, rather than feeding them fish every time. If we are given things on a silver platter, there will be no meaningful learning or growth. We wouldn’t appreciate it as much as we haven’t done the work ourselves. Remember, it’s not the mountain we climb, but who we become while reaching the top.

Never be afraid to push yourself. It’s the only way to grow. Every week when I exercise I push myself to go a little bit further than I did the week before. I know it’s the only way to grow. The struggle is the point.

Sometimes, you need others to push you:

Frank Gehry said that he was able to achieve great success in his work because his mother pushed him to be great. When you get others to push you, you’re accountable to them for doing the work. You can even set financial rewards as a stake by way of asking for feedback so you’re bound to lose money if you don’t keep your word. If that isn’t a good incentive to do the work, I don’t know what is.

Never rest on your laurels. For instance, if you are working in a corporate job, always be on the lookout for something better. That way, you remain untethered while you do the work with all your heart.

There are times when seeking comfort may be warranted. For instance, when it comes to dining out, I mostly go to the tried-and-tested restaurants where I know the food is going to be great. I am hesitant in trying out new places (which isn’t without reason). I am more willing to try new places when others I know have eaten there and raved about it. I think life is too short for a bad meal. The lesson here is we must be willing to try new things (if not by ourselves) at least by relying on others’ experience (learn from others’ mistakes if you will). This is also why I tend to watch fewer films at the cinema.

That said, we need some order in our life. We need to strike the right balance between order and chaos. Too much of either can be a bad thing. Not enough of either also works the same way.

Stop living a life of comfort. It’s not what you want. Make discomfort your compass. What makes you comfortable can ruin you, but what makes you uncomfortable can make you grow. Are you in a fish bowl that you’re not aware of? The only way to grow is to have discomfort. If you are not doing something that scares you, you are living a safe life. Anytime you choose to do something safe, you reinforce fear. It’s only by going too far that we find out how far we can go.

If it’s important, it must be uncomfortable. If the change you’re trying to make is within your comfort zone, then it’s not important enough. That means you’re not pushing hard enough. If you’re afraid of it, that means it’s worth pursuing and it’s important at the same time. That struggle is the point of doing it. That’s the only way to know that you’re doing work that matters. Ultimately, that will test the stand of time.

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