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Making Adversity Your Teacher

How to improve your relationship with discomfort.

Key points

  • You can learn to lean into discomfort.
  • Reframing discomfort requires a deeper understanding of pain.
  • Making friends with the ups and downs of life will help you bounce back from adversity.

 Mediteraneo/Adobe Stock
Karaoke places people in an uncomfortable situation with the aim of inoculating them from their discomfort.
Source: Mediteraneo/Adobe Stock

If I told you that a machine could inoculate you from discomfort, you probably wouldn’t believe me. But, in 1971, in Kobe, Japan, Daisuke Inoue invented a superb psychological device that did just that—the karaoke machine. He created a machine that intentionally placed people in an uncomfortable situation with the aim of inoculating them from discomfort. The result was people became comfortable being uncomfortable.

The brilliance of Inoue’s karaoke machine is that it put social anxieties in perspective.

Singing your favorite songs, and singing your heart out, knowing full well that you may not be very good, and accepting that fact, is a liberating experience.

 Music Sahrawi/Shutterstock
Leaning into discomfort allows you to accept yourself as imperfect by nature.
Source: Music Sahrawi/Shutterstock

Adversity Is Our Teacher

For much of human history, great hardship was viewed as the most noble of pursuits. The tougher, the better. Yet, in modern society, we often think the opposite. We believe the goal of life is to be happy all the time. Comfort and convenience are so alluring, it’s easy to lose sight of the value of adversity. While we chase comfort, we ignore our negative feelings, run away from fear, and become complacent. We don’t realize that adversity is our greatest teacher.

So, what’s your relationship with discomfort?

Reframing Discomfort

Do you flinch from pain or do you lean in and use it to grow? It’s inevitable you will fall down in life and work. The question is whether you get back up and how fast you rebound. We need to reframe how we see our discomfort. To do that, we first need a deeper understanding of pain.

Get Rid of the Second Arrow of Pain

An ancient Buddhist parable explains that pain comes in two parts. The first arrow is the initial pain, such as a failure, rejection, loss, or a simple backache. The second arrow is self-inflicted pain, caused by the story we tell ourselves about the situation. We fail, then we get hit by the arrow of self-doubt.

  • We are rejected, then we get hit by the arrow of resentment.
  • We lose something we want, then we get hit by the arrow of sadness.
  • We feel back pain, and we imagine chronic disability.

The Buddha taught that there is no relief from the first arrow. It hurts and we must accept that.

It’s What We Do With the Second Arrow That Matters

So, when you feel discomfort, don’t shy away from the heat. Instead, walk intentionally across the hot coals. Like physical pain, discomfort serves a critical role for alerting you to what needs to be accepted, changed, or avoided. You will be a more agile and resilient person if you make friends with the ups and downs of life.

Tips for Healthy and Conscious Living

  1. Be willing to embrace the unknown. Every time you breathe, the world changes. Stability is an illusion.
  2. Distinguish between what you can and cannot control. Focusing on what you cannot control is an anxiety producer and time waster.
  3. Become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Accept yourself as imperfect by nature and lean into discomfort when you are able.
  4. Be tough enough to be gentle with yourself. When you are feeling vulnerable, know that you have been there before and the sun will rise tomorrow.
  5. Pause, reflect, refresh. If you fall down, recommit to your purpose, rest up, and tomorrow get back on the bike.


Rosen, Robert, Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success. NY: Penguin.

Rosen, Bob & Swann, Emma-Kate (2018). CONSCIOUS: The Power of Awareness in Business and LIfe. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.