Self Improvement

The Two Sides of Discomfort

Last week, after months of deliberation, I shadowed an acting class. I wasn’t sure what to expect–it took everything in me just to show up. I have no desire to be an actor and there’s no hidden talent buried within me. In fact, the thought of acting makes me want to curl up and die. So what the hell was I doing there?

For those committed to personal growth, discomfort is considered a positive. And it often is. But discomfort can signal different things.

Sometimes discomfort is a sign that you’re growing and pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone or current abilities. Other times it acts an alert, warning you of a misguided decision.

The same concept holds true for exercise. There’s a discomfort that you push through to build strength or endurance. But there’s also a discomfort that signals injury. If you attempt to push through the latter, you compound the mistake and end up worse for it. While exercise is based more on feeling and experience, personal growth shares similar elements.

A certain level of stress is important. As Nassim Taleb, philosopher and writer, explains in his book Antifragile, “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” The key is finding the right threshold.

Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.
— Nassim Taleb

What’s worth sticking out?

Whenever I’m in an uncomfortable situation, I apply the same rule of thumb that I use to evaluate whether or not something is worth quitting.

I start by asking myself, “Do I feel nervous or uncomfortable because this is difficult? Or do I feel nervous because something’s off and this contradicts my character, values, or principles?”

The former is worth sticking out because that’s where personal growth stems from. The latter means it’s probably time to bow out and reassess.

With the acting class, my primary motivation was using it as an experiment to improve my public speaking skills. I came across the idea over coffee with a friend and fellow writer, Lily Hansen. She told me how her background in acting helped improve her stage presence and presentation skills. It was an interesting angle that I thought worth testing out.

But the fact remained, I was nervous and in no way looking forward to the class. It took a disproportionate amount of energy to even schedule it. But I followed through because it aligned with an area of my life that I wanted to improve.

Another way of looking at this is by using a model James Clear suggests, and asking yourself, “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?”

The acting class was a vote for my desired identity, not as an actor, but as a stronger communicator and storyteller. I looked at it as an opportunity to arm myself with techniques to build greater comfort presenting in front of an audience.

Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?
— James Clear

The nuance of discomfort

There’s also a nuance to discomfort that’s worth taking into account. As circumstances change, the type of discomfort can shift beneath you. Earlier this year, a few technology companies reached out about open positions. I went through with the interviews–nerves and all–because I knew they would help me hone my skills, clean up my thinking, and explore my options.

But when it came to an offer, it was a different type of discomfort. I was able to step back and identify that my hesitation was because it didn’t line up with my priorities for the immediate future. I was still more excited about my current team, our upcoming challenges, and what we were building.

In that context, the decision to leave such a positive situation seemed foolish. I didn’t want to jump at the first new opportunity I came across, I wanted the right opportunity. And that meant doubling down on my current position.

The difficult part is that you have to preserve a deep sense of awareness to avoid rationalizing decisions beyond all recognition. There will be moments when you fail to rise to the occasion. Your natural instinct will be to seek out evidence to affirm you made the right decision–confirmation bias.

But life is rarely as neat and orderly as you might hope. You won’t always know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you made the right or wrong decision. You just have to assess things to the best of your ability and learn along the way. With greater awareness of your cognitive biases and what discomfort means in different contexts, you’ll be able to make better decisions.

Growth and self-preservation

If you take an impulse at face value, you’ll never be able to differentiate between the shades of discomfort. Consider what side of the spectrum the discomfort you’re facing falls on. One leads towards growth and the other self-preservation.

There will be moments when you’re uncomfortable. That’s not always a bad thing. The vast majority of us would be better off with more adventure, discomfort, and randomness in our lives. But you have to know the difference between stupid risks and opportunities for growth.

If it aligns with your character, it’s worth pushing through those difficult moments when you feel like quitting. No matter how uncomfortable you might be. It’s the discomfort from situations that contradict your character or priorities that deserve a second look.