Discomfort is necessary in order to grow and live a meaningful life. This is a truth that I have lately become more aware of, and based on that I’ve been trying to be more deliberate in my choices and priorities.
I’m sure most people are aware of this idea. Messages like “get outside your comfort zone” and “no pain, no gain” are so common these days that they have almost become meaningless. I admit that I thought I had a good grasp on this. But even after having studied Stoicism and having read countless books about grit and willpower, I still sometimes find myself running away from discomfort. Many times at work I’ve chosen tasks that require skills I already know, even though I’d learn much more by choosing other tasks. Several times I’ve skipped my kickboxing or MMA training and went to the gym instead — obviously, it’s more comfortable to just lift weights instead of getting thrown around or punched in the face.
I am a proponent of building positive habits and routines in order to make growth and self-improvement almost automatic. This would be in the lines of Jonathan Field’s words: “Ritualise the mundane to make room for the brilliant”. Having strong positive habits means that you don’t have to exert willpower to make the right choice every time you’re faced with a decision. In that sense I have developed my gym-going habit, and I got to the point where I almost don’t need any willpower to convince myself to do my workouts. But I realised I have reached a plateau, where even if I was trying to challenge myself during the workouts to push my limits, it didn’t feel that difficult anymore. This made me realise I need a sudden change, something to kickstart me into further growth. That’s when I decided to start training in martial arts — first Savate, which I’ve done for about 7 months, then last month I’ve made the switch to Mixed Martial Arts, which is massively more challenging but exactly what I was looking for.
I get weird looks every time somebody asks me something like “Why do you practice martial arts? Do you like it?” and I give the brief and simplified answer “No, I just do it because it’s difficult and uncomfortable”. And it is. There’s nothing else I do regularly that’s more difficult than those 2 weekly training sessions of MMA. It makes everything else seem easy in comparison.
One of the harsh realisations I’ve had to make at the training sessions, especially when sparring, was that I’m not as fit as I thought I was. I get tired easily, my punches aren’t as strong as I imagined, and I can barely kick at head-level. But I’m glad I’ve got a reality check and uncovered these weaknesses, because now I know what I have to work on.
I’m using martial arts as an example, but this idea applies in many fields. Think about areas at work where you’ve avoided getting involved in just because it’s something new and you’re not sure you can take it on. Or sports or other activities that you thought of trying out but avoided. Trying that new thing might be uncomfortable and it might reveal to you some painful truths, but you might be missing out on some precious real-world feedback that can help you take the next step forward.
“And this is what’s so dangerous about a society that coddles itself more and more from the inevitable discomforts of life: we lose the benefits of experiencing healthy doses of pain, a loss that disconnects us from the reality of the world around us.” - Mark Manson
Too often, my default activity during downtime is entertainment. I watch countless YouTube videos and movies. I just consume what other people have created, alongside loads of snacks. And I do that because it’s easy, and it’s so easy!
But I feel so much better when I push through the resistance and convince myself to work on something, like I’m now doing with this blog post. In that way I’m denying myself instant gratification in service of my longer term goals.
This is clear: if you want to live a happy and meaningful life, you have to go through some pain and discomfort. And it’s better if you choose that discomfort yourself with clarity and intention. Rather than passively confronting just the challenges that you encounter, why not practice getting comfortable with the discomfort itself?
“Happiness requires struggle. It grows from problems. Joy doesn’t just sprout out of the ground like daisies and rainbows. Real, serious, lifelong fulfilment and meaning have to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles.” - Mark Manson
The willingness to accept discomfort is simply discipline. And of course, this is another skill that can be built through repeated practice. By choosing the more uncomfortable option over and over again, discipline itself can become a habit.