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4 Ways to Use Discomfort for Personal Growth

A woman speaking into a microphone for personal growth


I liked challenging people and making them uncomfortable. That’s what leads to introspection and that’s what leads to improvement. You could say I dared people to be their best selves. 

–– Kobe Bryant

By John Millen

I was speaking to about 100 sales leaders in California a couple of years ago and urged the women in the audience to be more willing to step up for opportunities, as the guys do.

A woman senior leader asked me whether I really believed that women don’t take enough risk for opportunities. 

From her smile I could read she was throwing me a softball challenge and wanted me to elaborate.

I gave an example of a job that may be two levels up. In my experience a woman will give an honest assessment of her strengths and weaknesses and might conclude that she might be 80 percent ready. A dude might say, “I’ve got this.”  

It was a laugh line, but true. It’s a generalization so it’s not 100 percent, but it’s a real issue.

Youngest Female CEO

With this in mind, I was taken by an interview on CNBC with Corie Barry, Best Buy’s first female chief executive. 

At 44 years old, Barry was the youngest woman CEO in the Fortune 100, and one of only 27 female CEOs in the S&P 500, according to Catalyst.

In the interview, Barry gave other women in business the advice to “make yourself uncomfortable, and to take sometimes, the jobs no one else wants.”

In some 20 years at the consumer electronics retailer, Barry had 15 jobs, including president of Geek Squad Services and chief financial officer.

She's learned that the key to success for women –– and for men –– is pushing yourself into challenging situations, outside your comfort zone, to grow personally and professionally.

1. Growth comes from discomfort

“My career path is anything but linear,” she said. “I spent time in finance. I spent time actually living and working in the field in retail. I spent time running services.

"I started our strategic growth office. I’ve had the chance to run our technology teams. The goal for me…is about breadth and about understanding and growing that skill set as much as possible.”

Barry’s message to other women is to “speak up with the point of view in the room that may not be popular. Have those uncomfortable moments.

"Because my strong personal belief is it is those moments that cause you to grow the most yourself, but that also differentiate you the most in your career.”

She says history and studies show that on the whole women will wait until they are “perfectly ready” for the next role, but she said it more broadly applies to all genders. 

2. Force yourself into discomfort

“People want this level of confidence that frankly just isn’t possible in business, which is why I say, start with making yourself uncomfortable," Barry said.

"Because somewhere in here you’re going to have to be willing to put yourself into a space that you don’t quite feel ready to fill and then leverage all the resources around you to help you be successful.”

I have a close family member who was a Navy SEAL. He introduced me to one of their most useful training phrases, “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

3. Reframe discomfort as a sign of progress

This view is backed by research. According to Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago and author of Get it Done: Surprising Lessons From The Science of Motivation. 

In an article in Behavorial Scientist, Dr. Fishbach explains that:

When seeking to feel discomfort, the people in our experiments reappraised those feelings as a positive cue—that is, as a sign of progress. As a result, they were more motivated to engage with the unwelcome information.

To motivate self-growth, whether in school, at the gym, or at your job, it’s best when you experience immediate gratification. If you loved an improv class, likely you’ll come back again. But the path to self-growth often involves short-term discomfort in the service of long-term gains.

You might only learn to love your class, workout, or new job after trying it a few times. When people can positively spin otherwise negative cues—reappraise their discomfort as a sign of achievement—those cues become more motivating.

Taken cautiously, adopting a “no pain, no gain” mentality when you know something will make you feel awkward, sad, scared, or uncomfortable in the short-run can boost your motivation to stick with it until it feels right.

It’s what I tell my clients. Your most valuable growth happens just outside of your comfort zone.

With the magnitude of change in business and the world, learning to be comfortable with discomfort may be your most important skill.

4. Take action by saying "yes" to discomfort

Think about it: What opportunities have you let pass by because you didn’t feel “perfectly ready”?

Start considering how you can say “yes” to discomfort in your business and personal lives. 

Your key to success may well be feeling comfortable with discomfort.

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