In our modern world, discomfort is considered a terrible thing. If not terrible, at least a thing of the past. Dishwashers, washing machines, computers, remote controls—yes, they add convenience, but also a level of comfort our forefathers did not enjoy.
Pain of any kind thwarts happiness, we tend to reason, and so anything that compromises our ability to feel good must be bad (who hasn’t seen a commercial for a pain reliever?) But that’s also particularly true for our careers. Success feels great, not lousy! Such a view, however, is in the eye of the beholder. And it may blind us to unforeseen opportunities.
"Suffering from the world"
Artists throughout history have consistently courted suffering, instinctively if not consciously, to produce works that explore the darker recesses of the human condition. This was done, in part, because pain is a reality of life for everybody in some form at some time. Pain is something everybody can relate to. And pain makes a person very present. For such artists, to ameliorate or to deny pain would be to block the creative muses, that which drives them to explore and express. In fact, Germans have a term for this melancholia, “Weltschmerz”, which means “suffering from the world.” Writers, from Lord Byron to Kurt Vonnegut, have used the term to describe the psychological pain encountered along life’s roller-coaster journey. It was not to be avoided: it was to be understood, investigated, employed.
When it comes to movies, box office receipts bear witness to the fact that we are drawn to brooding superheroes; the gleeful ones just don’t possess the adequate level of gravitas required to save the world or revolutionize it. (Think “Batman Begins”.) And while we may not want to feel anguish of any kind, we don’t mind seeing it in others, from the safety and comfort of the cinema or one’s own dreamy couch, if it evokes a profound revelation, or flashes of insight. When the pain can be viewed from a distance, one can more easily discern the value of the struggle. Yes, there is value.
So I propose that discomfort is good for us. Or, put another way, it tells us that something needs to be addressed. It stretches us by forcing us to view our circumstances through a wholly different lens. Because we’re drawn to safety and security, we do our best to create cushy comfort zones for ourselves and our loved ones through the cars we drive, the homes we live in, and the places we work. But by resisting discomfort, we deny ourselves an important opportunity: the chance to shake ourselves out of our predictable perspectives and allow ourselves to make astute observations we could not possibly have made before. Discomfort gives us fresh eyes.
Embracing ambiguity—and friction
On my first day as Director of Marketing for a product design firm, I found out during my welcome meeting with Human Resources about another Director of Marketing at the firm. When I asked who reported to whom, my HR contact said: “To be honest, we’re still trying to figure that out.” I admit I felt discomfort at this news, more than what I felt I could handle—but it also immediately prepared me for the firm’s unique culture of ambiguity. Seven wonderful years followed.
The creative ideas and innovative solutions that lead to coveted moments of illumination, and help to solve the thorny problems we encounter in life and on the job, don’t come from stasis. Harmony at work, for example, is good and can also spur productivity. But if it’s pursued purely for its own sake, it can function like blinders on a horse, directing our view—and our thinking—in only one direction. It can close us off to other possibilities. Sounds rather limiting, doesn’t it?
Creative thinkers aren’t afraid of discomfort because it gives them greater perspective. It opens the door to approaches they’ve never tried, or even thought of. It increases the range of their problem-solving arsenal.
Some simple ways to create moments of positive discomfort at work include: swapping desks or roles with colleagues; inviting a co-worker to lunch whom you’ve never met before; or improvising an ad-hoc voice-over on slides you have never seen before at a staff meeting. The point is: explore new methods and ways of thinking—constantly. This helps to normalize the feeling of discomfort, which stalls the inevitable pull of your comfort zone.
I’m not suggesting self-inflicted pain to inspire creative thinking or problem-solving. But I do think we’d be better off when we’re not so quick to qualify the spells of discomfort that inevitably come our way as “bad”. See the discomfort as the potential opportunity it is. It’s telling us something. Unless there is a chronic condition, discomfort comes and goes. A wave in the ocean doesn’t last forever—we all know this. But surfers see the ephemeral beauty of waves and make the most of them. So should we.
To learn more, please see my new book THE BUSINESS ROMANTIC (HarperCollins).