Be intentionally uncomfortable to grow

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The title is ironic, isn’t it? In a world obsessed with productivity, multitasking, and distractions, there’s plenty of stress already. The number one piece of advice we hear from friends, family, and medical professionals is to manage our stress. To disconnect often, sleep more, eat healthy, and maintain an active lifestyle. Stress has come to be seen with such negativity that we have become oblivious to its benefits.

Like everything in life, excess of everything is bad. But when applied in moderation, most things are okay or even beneficial. When consumed in excess alcohol and sweets damage your physical and mental health. But when taken in small, deliberate quantities, red wine and dark chocolate provide proven health benefits. It’s when you abuse them that they turn into risky things.

Stress is no different. When experienced in moderation, we feel uncomfortable for a short while and return to our previous state of mind thereafter. But when stress is persistent, no matter how intense, we burn out.

That’s not to say all stress is equal. Some stresses serve no purpose other than making you necessarily uncomfortable: facing the heat of a rude boss who regularly shouts at their employees, refusing to carry an umbrella in rainy weather when you hate rains, and realizing you’re delayed in your assignment right after throwing your valuable time in social media.

But stress doesn’t have to be always bad for you. Positive stress is what helps you grow in both your personal and professional lives.

Say you want to be good at playing guitar. You can play the basic chords quite fluently, but you aspire to have the same fluency with barre chords. Despite this, every time you pick up your guitar all you do is try and make it as enjoyable as possible. Do you see the irony? Without practicing barre chords, how do you expect to get fluent in them? Playing them may feel uncomfortable and stressful, but that’s what will help you grow. With enough practice, you’ll stop feeling uncomfortable and get to a point where you start enjoying barre chords.

I think this applies to any pursuit, skill, or hobby.

You do not become a great speaker without being uncomfortable in front of a large audience.

You do not become a great leader without putting yourself in embarrassing situations and learning from mistakes.

You do not get a great body without gradually increasing your workout intensity so it feels slightly uncomfortable at each gear shift.

The book Peak Performance explores this relationship of stress and growth intimately. I am only 25% into the book, but it’s already my biggest takeaway from it – a new way of looking at growth and being uncomfortable.

Just-manageable challenges manifest when you take on something that makes you feel a little out of control but not quite anxious or overly aroused. When the task at hand is a bit beyond your skills you’re in the sweet spot.

I don’t think this is a revolutionary new way of thinking. The Stoics promoted putting yourself in uncomfortable situations from time to time so you could feel gratitude for what you have. Eg. sleeping one night on the floor will make you appreciative of your bed. But the idea that positive stress is the key ingredient for growth is certainly thought-provoking.

Stress a bar of steel intentionally, it will become a sword that can cut through enemies. Stress it too much, it will break.

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