The following is excerpted from The Beauty of Discomfort: How What We Avoid Is What We Need by author and business journalist Amanda Lang. The book, published this year by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., is the basis for the author's interview with Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer.
How can we make change easier?
As a business journalist I instinctively look at the big picture, so when I set out to find how to make change easier, I started by looking at industry patterns and the stories of individual companies. How did Microsoft face the formidable challenge posed by Apple? How did Intel pivot, even though pivoting involved massive layoffs and a wholesale restructuring? How did Netflix resurrect its fortunes when customers revolted after a fee increase?
I soon realized that I was looking for answers in the wrong places, because industries and companies don’t decide to change or innovate. People do. To understand how to make change easier, I needed to look at individuals, to understand the human dimension that [disruptive innovation expert] Clay Christensen had identified
For most of us, change is not comfortable. Sometimes the discomfort comes from uncertainty or ambiguity. What if we do this and sales tank? What if I don’t succeed? Sometimes it’s related to a sense of loss. Change usually demands that you give something up, and whether that something is an HR policy or carbohydrates, the prospect is rarely pleasant. Sometimes the discomfort is even more fundamental, and linked to identity: If I make this change — get divorced, say, or quit my job to start my own business — who will I be? I’ll have to reinvent myself.
Many of us conceive of discomfort as a temporary stage, a necessary if unpleasant rite of passage on the way to a better future. Scrimping and saving, living in a crummy apartment, working long hours for too little money — that’s all stuff you put up with while waiting for the day when you’ve “made it.” Once you’ve reached your goal, you can relax a little. Being comfortable is the goal.
What’s striking about creative and innovative people, whether they’re change agents in Silicon Valley or artists whose work is shown at the Venice Biennale, is that comfort doesn’t seem to suit them. Some respond to success the way other people respond to failure: they redouble their efforts, working even harder and longer. Many seek out a new challenge altogether; the CEO of a start-up takes up the guitar, the prize-winning novelist starts volunteering at orphanages in Haiti. They seek out new experiences — change — again and again.
Something about that seems to jump-start creativity and innovation. “Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience,” according to a recent article in the New York Times. “In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.”
Now, these scientists may be lousy dancers and piano players, but that’s not the point. The point is that a lot of highly successful creative types continually seek out the very kinds of challenges that make the rest of us, including me, pretty uncomfortable. Whether it’s straining to complete a triathlon or write a poem, they are willing to go far outside their comfort zone, and that seems to enhance their creativity and also make them more successful in their day jobs. It’s not just about having hobbies. It’s about seeking out new experiences that force them to stretch.
Here’s the thing: truly successful people don’t merely tolerate discomfort — they embrace it, seeking it out again and again. And their comfort with discomfort is what makes them so good at change. They seem to experience discomfort as a positive rather than a negative force, and they find a way to use it to motivate themselves to achieve.
To understand how to change, then, we have to understand how to withstand discomfort. This is a very personal project because discomfort, always, is internal. It’s mental and emotional and sometimes physical, and leaning into it requires us to use muscles we may not even know we have. Flexing them — allowing for ambiguity, for the unknown, for possibilities that feel risky and maybe downright terrifying — is how creativity and fresh starts become possible.
What I have learned is this: if you want to change something big, like a company, you have to start small, by changing yourself and becoming more comfortable with discomfort. Fortunately, there are ways to train ourselves to do this, as well as a lot of social science explaining why we should.
Now, I’m aware that discomfort is a hard sell. No one needs to be convinced that there’s beauty to comfort — we all know that a five-star hotel room is pretty great. Discomfort doesn’t hold out the same promise of pleasure or reward. If there’s gratification, it’s going to be delayed. And in the meantime, you need to believe — as people who are virtuosos at change do — that even if you’re never rewarded, some degree of discomfort is inherently good for you. It can spur you on, pushing you to test your own limits; it can make you feel as if you’re growing and learning; it can give you a whole new perspective on yourself, and on life.
Learning to tolerate, and then embrace, discomfort is the foundation for change, for individuals and businesses alike. To some, it seems to come pretty naturally; others have no choice. Those of us who want to change in some way will need to develop a new set of instincts to respond to discomfort. The good news is that we can do that. But the best news of all is that doing so won’t just make us more resilient and more successful, how ever we define success. It will also make us happier.
Excerpt from The Beauty of Discomfort by Amanda Lang ©2017. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.