The Dis-comfort Zone – Getting comfortable with discomfort

jumpingtwilight zonecomfort zone comic

Watching the fiscal cliff negotiations over the past few months has provided us many valuable lessons. One might be, you should never give old, white men something important to do over the holidays. Another – it’s probably not a successful strategy to say “go f- yourself” to your negotiation partner. But perhaps the most potent lesson we have learned is that, to get any progress in life, you have to get outside your comfort zone. Welcome to the Discomfort Zone!

Why do I say this? Isn’t everything in life about achieving and living in comfort? Finding your comfort zone is a potent human driver. It’s where you feel most competent and able. You feel your strongest sense of belonging. Things are predictable, and you’re prepared for whatever happens. And you’re happy to stay there. But our comfort zones hold us back. Because, in the comfort zone, learning, progress, and innovation tend to stop. Change doesn’t occur. We can end up hitting all kinds of cliffs and impasses, fiscal and otherwise. We just say “no”, and stay in our bubbles.

The truth is, we are all wired to shun discomfort. It’s, well, uncomfortable. It fills us with fear – of not “knowing” things, of looking dumb or inept, of making mistakes, of failure. We’re filled with doubt. It’s the opposite of our comfort zone. And that is painful – so we avoid it.

But we need the discomfort zone – to improve, develop and challenge ourselves and do new things. But how can we get comfortable with discomfort?

Don’t panic. It’s natural to feel anxiety in the Discomfort Zone. There’s the stress of not knowing what you’re doing and the fear of the unknown. But panic causes you to freeze up – which in turn negates the possibility of learning and growth. On top of that, the unpleasantness of panic will likely cause you to want to avoid it the future. It’s easy to say, I know, but instead, try to relax and let go.

Provide support. When working in a group, it’s important to make sure your team feels safe. Develop a culture of mutual respect and support. Make sure folks feel that mistakes are expected and blame won’t be an issue. And that everyone is in it together.

Don’t think only in terms of success vs. failure. If you only view things in this binary way, you will likely avoid failure like the plague – by always staying firmly in your comfort zone. But, as I’ve stated before, failure can be a very good thing… and it’s generally the precursor to success. So face uncertainty with the passion of a scientist – knowing that all results are good, and learning comes from any experience.

Recognize that not knowing is the norm.  No matter how much experience you have and how much expertise you’ve gathered, every situation is new. So, whether you realize it or not, you’re constantly confronted with ambiguity and uncertainty. So get used to it.

Get out of the bubble. Spend too much time in your comfort zone and you can lose perspective. You can start to get high on your own exhaust. That’s why it’s important to push yourself out of your own bubble every once in a while, in both small and large ways. Take a new route to work, read different magazines or websites, try to understand things from another perspective. And, above all else, question everything, especially yourself.

Be willing to fall on your face. The number one thing that keeps us from venturing out into uncomfortable places is the fear of looking stupid. Of making mistakes. Of having people laugh at us. But that’s got to be challenged. Do your best to not take yourself too seriously – it’s unlikely that we’re talking about life or death. And when others begin to laugh at you, join in – and be the loudest laugh of all.

I’m facing 2013 with a renewed passion to force myself into discomfort. It’s something I will need to practice, to consciously seek and push myself towards. But in the words of Peter McWilliams, “comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort”.


  1. This post should be required reading for those business people out there that subscribe to the status quo. Nice piece.

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