Discomfort Zones

Happy Tuesday, threes of fans!

It was a beautiful weekend up here in North Idaho. Spring is definitely in the air. It seems like everything and everyone can feel it.

Even the skunk I smelled a few mornings ago when I took my dogs out into the yard at 5:45 am.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about discomfort and failure lately–no, not in an angsty and self-flagellating way (well, not entirely in those ways), but more in a “painful and difficult things can be catalysts for growth” kind of way. I thought I’d try to corral these thoughts into something coherent that might be helpful or at least entertaining to some of you.

Some Light Reading…

So far this year, I’ve read three books that have all sort of overlapped around some ideas of failure and when it’s good (or bad), discomfort and why it’s valuable, and knowing when and why to quit.

Just a little light reading, you know.

(Lest you assume that I’m spiraling down into another angst cycle, let me assure you that only one of those was something I chose on my own. The other two were for my non-fiction book club.)

There were things I liked and disliked about all of those books, but they did help to crystalize some of my thinking around regret, failure, work, imposter syndrome, and when it’s time to walk away.

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But there’s kind of an overarching theme in all of these books, and it’s one we don’t really like to talk about–namely, there is a lot of value in the hard stuff in life.

If we allow ourselves to draw on it, that is.

From Awkward Moments to Terrible Experiences

Let’s face it: we don’t like discomfort.

From embarrassing moments to physical danger, we do everything we can to avoid things that can damage us in some way.

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And to be candid, that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s good that we have built-in mechanisms to prevent us from experiencing harm. Those mechanisms kept us from being eaten by tigers or ostracized by our early human tribes. They kept us in the fold, so to speak.

We aren’t the only creatures that have these mechanisms, obviously. Even my cats know how to jump to higher ground when my dogs–who generally get along great with the cats–run into a room too quickly or bark at the UPS guy.

Self-preservation is a thing, and it’s necessary for the survival of our species–or any species.

But what these books have pointed out in varying degrees is that we need discomfort to grow and improve. Adam Grant points out in Hidden Potential that polyglots–people who speak multiple languages–aren’t necessarily the people who are gifted at language. Rather, they are people who embraced the discomfort of living among native speakers of other languages and struggled through awkward moments and difficult learning curves to become fluent. Two of the polyglots Grant discusses spent years in school trying to learn other languages and failing. Only when they lived with other speakers were they able to pick up a new language.

Which leads me back to some thoughts I had a few months ago…

You Gotta Lift Light to Lift Heavy

For a number of reasons, it took me a good while to get into the flow of marketing my freelance writing last year. I blame the busy travel season we had for part of my sluggishness, but if I’m honest, I have to admit that I just really didn’t want to face the process of selling myself again. It can just be so exhausting to do all the prospecting, e-mailing, following up, and selling that I seriously thought about just quitting all of it (which is largely why I read Quit, by Annie Duke).

But at some point, I found this little graphic, and it helped me reframe my reluctance and struggle:

Oh, look at that nice little cocoon of a comfort zone there at the bottom–that lovely little place where you feel all cozy and safe and in control, like Bilbo before Gandalf comes calling.

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It occurred to me that that little comfort zone is where I was with my physical health at the end of 2016. I was overweight and exhausted and depressed. I decided that something needed to change, and I went back to the beginning–the old weight lifting and running program that had worked for me before.

It was not without trepidation that I went into that whole program. I knew it would be hard. Put aside the struggle of just finding the time in the midst of volunteering, parenting, and managing all kinds of household struggles at the time–if none of those existed, I’d still have sore muscles and a body that would protest the effort.

But–I hoisted that 40-pound barbell onto the weight bench and started there. When I started, I could barely bench press 70 pounds for even a few reps.

Now?

I regularly press 110.

Here’s the point: You gotta lift light and be awkward and suffer the soreness if you’re going to eventually lift heavy. You can’t get to heavy without all the hard bits.

Time in the Discomfort Zone

Why am I ruminating on all of this today?

I’m not sure, exactly. Maybe it’s partly because of Robert Downey, Jr., thanking his “terrible childhood” for his Oscar. He did have a terrible childhood, and he’s struggled publicly a lot over the years.

Also, he one thousand percent deserved that Oscar, because his performance in Oppenheimer was perfection.

But would he have ever received that Oscar were it not for his terrible childhood and struggles with addiction? Would he have met his wife, who he credits with bringing him back to wholeness?

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The point is–he’s reached the level of success he’s reached today in large part because he took all those terrible experiences and personal failures repurposed them into the person he is today–someone who has a stable marriage, a thriving career, and–now–an Oscar.

This is what Carol Dweck of Stanford calls a “growth mindset.” Someone with a “fixed mindset” tends to be more risk averse and less willing to persevere through obstacles than someone with a growth mindset, who sees challenges as opportunities to learn and grow.

It would have been easy for RDJ to turn his painful experiences and personal failures into excuses to burn out and die of an overdose, like so many others in that world. But somewhere along the way, he had to make a decision that he would stack those obstacles up underneath himself and use them to achieve bigger and better things.

As I look back at my writing career and forward to what’s next, I am encouraging myself to remember the awkward marketing moments, the struggles with balance and time, the choices between doing dishes and writing–all of those forks in the road where sometimes I chose the discomfort and learned from it, and sometimes I did the dishes.

And you know what?

Today, I sort of know what I’m doing.

I still have things to learn, and as the world and technology change all the time, I will have to adapt along the way.

But…

The discomfort zones aren’t all that bad.

 

I’ll see y’all next week.

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