The Best Kept Secret of Very Successful People

Truly successful people don’t merely tolerate discomfort—they embrace it, seeking it out again and again.

successful business women _ embracing discomfort photo credit: shutterstock

For most of us, change is not comfortable. Sometimes the discomfort comes from uncertainty or ambiguity. What if we do this and sales tank? What if I don’t succeed? Sometimes it’s related to a sense of loss. Change usually demands that you give something up, and whether that something is an HR policy or carbohydrates, the prospect is rarely pleasant. Sometimes the discomfort is even more fundamental, and linked to identity: If I make this change – get divorced, say, or quit my job to start my own business – who will I be? I’ll have to reinvent myself.

Many of us conceive of discomfort as a temporary stage, a necessary if unpleasant rite of passage on the way to a better future. Scrimping and saving, living in a crummy apartment, working long hours for too little money – that’s all stuff you put up with while waiting for the day when you’ve “made it.” Once you’ve reached your goal, you can relax a little. Being comfortable is the goal.

Discomfort and Innovation

What’s striking about creative and innovative people, whether they’re change agents in Silicon Valley or artists whose work is shown at the Venice Biennale, is that comfort doesn’t seem to suit them. Some respond to success the way other people respond to failure: They redouble their efforts, working even harder and longer. Many seek out a new challenge altogether; the CEO of a start-up takes up the guitar, the prize-winning novelist starts volunteering at orphanages in Haiti. They seek out new experiences – change – again and again.

Something about that seems to jump-start creativity and innovation. “Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience,” according to a recent article in the New York Times.

“In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.”

Discomfort and Creativity

Now, these scientists may be lousy dancers and piano players, but that’s not the point. The point is that a lot of highly successful creative types continually seek out the very kinds of challenges that make the rest of us, including me, pretty uncomfortable. Whether it’s straining to complete a triathlon or write a poem, they are willing to go far outside their comfort zone, and that seems to enhance their creativity and also make them more successful in their day jobs. It’s not just about having hobbies. It’s about seeking out new experiences that force them to stretch.

Here’s the thing: Truly successful people don’t merely tolerate discomfort—they embrace it, seeking it out again and again. And their comfort with discomfort is what makes them so good at change. They seem to experience discomfort as a positive rather than a negative force, and they find a way to use it to motivate themselves to achieve.

To understand how to change, then, we have to understand how to withstand discomfort. This is a very personal project because discomfort, always, is internal. It’s mental and emotional and sometimes physical, and leaning into it requires us to use muscles we may not even know we have. Flexing them—allowing for ambiguity, for the unknown, for possibilities that feel risky and maybe downright terrifying—is how creativity and fresh starts become possible.

Excerpt from The Beauty of Discomfort by Amanda Lang (c) 2017. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.