The pursuit of discomfort: a road to a big life

You might have heard of ‘hygge’, loosely translated as comfy or cozy in Danish, a word that has gained quite a lot of prominence recently in the popular Western culture. The concept acutely represents our species relentless pursuit for more and more ease and comfort in our lives.
Evolutionary psychologists would likely explain this search for ease through the inherent lack of danger, strenuous effort, or other waste of precious energy.  Ironically, however, while avoiding doing anything close to your mental or physical limits and experiencing discomfort may decrease wasting energy, with absolute comfort we actually step onto a slowly descending escalator to decay and disintegration.

Practically everything in life – your mental capabilities, muscles, skills, social prowess, emotional intelligence –  is in a constant state of either growth through practice and utilisation to the limits or diminishing. Yet our built-in survival system is guiding is to avoid any unnecessary exertion, which inhibits us from reaching our full potential.
In order to proactively push against the natural tendencies and pursue growth, we’re left with a choice to purposefully seek discomfort. Motivated by the goal to have a larger life and become immune to the discomforts of daily existence, such as embarrassment, minor physical pains, or ridicule of others, you have to choose to exit the comfort zone in order to make it bigger. Below are vehicles for doing that, divided into physical and mental pursuits. While I’ve tried and tested all of them, please take caution, consult your doctor, and attempt any at your own risk.

Physical discomfort

There are at least four arenas where piercing through physical discomfort leads to growth. The feedback if very direct and expanding your limits quantifiable. This property make the four areas: strength training, cardio training, cold exposure, and heat exposure excellent practice ground for exiting your comfort zone. 
Be extra careful of going into the unknown given the risk of permanent damage. Also, let’s keep in mind that not all physical discomfort is good for you. Pain caused by diseases and injuries doesn’t lead to growth, just the opposite. 

Strength training


Isn’t it interesting that arguably the most uncomfortable exercises in weight lifting, like squats and deadlifts, tend to be most effective in forming muscle.. In addition, it’s the last repetition in the set done at the very limit of your capacity (definitely way out of the comfort zone) that drives most of the muscle growth.  This makes strength training the perfect school of physical discomfort. Just seek out the exercises that are most annoying and push until you fail despite full effort.
There are a few tactics that can help out in my experience. Firstly, pushing to the limits of your capacity becomes both more effective and safe if you have a gym buddy, who can assist and encourage during those last reps. Secondly, building up some pre-set aggression releases the hormones that take you an inch further that your body would willingly go. Finally, careful breath work can make a huge difference in performance, if it’s not already part of your routine. 


Cardio training


Intuitively, the best way to practice for long distance runs and increase aerobic capability would be, well, long distance running. Go out for an hour or two, keeping a steady pace, and come back with a smile on your face from all the endorphins running through your blood stream. However, high intensity interval training (HIIT), ie. going several times full throttle at 20 second bursts, can actually provide you with larger gains in both aerobic and anaerobic capacity. From personal experience I can tell that after a proper HIIT session your face will more likely be wearing a painful grimace than a smile.
Being able to push through the initial pain becomes easier with a few perspectives shifts. One is to notice how fast you can actually sprint and enjoy the feeling of speed. Become hooked at how fast your body can take you and you’ll develop a craving for it. Another is to track your heart rate and aim to reach a new record each session.

Heat exposure


While Finns have known this for hundreds of years, only recently has the global scientific community taken saunas and heat exposure under rigorous study for their health benefits. These include 15% increase in longevity, faster muscle growth, enhanced brain performance, and increases in endurance. Most people will find that the first five to ten minutes in the sauna are very relaxing and leave your muscles soft like after a good massage. Once again, however, the largest health benefits occur only after 15 minutes of heat – done twice at 80°C. This means that you have to continue being roasted long after your pulse has started to race faster and the urge for cold relief built up.
The key to pushing past this discomfort is to focus on your breath, slowing it down and then just paying attention to how the body feels. It’s actually really interesting to notice how heat brings up many sensations that normally go unnoticed inside you.  

Cold exposure


Being exposed to cold is practically the opposite of comfortable for most people. This is why taking an ice-cold shower – especially first things in the morning – is one of the most effective ways to train for discomfort. The fruits of doing so are many, from lower rate of sickness to higher metabolism. That said, except for certain Finns perhaps, being under frosty water isn’t exactly the first thing your body craves jumping out of a soft warm bed.

To make things easier, you might want to build up cold exposure training steadily. For example, start by taking a hot shower first for 30 seconds and then slowly start going colder while controlling your breath. Alternatively, begin by taking the cold plunge only after a workout when your body heat is up already.


Mental discomfort

Much of the discomfort we experience in our lifes is caused by the outdated software in our head. The fears that used to protect us from the lethal dangers now keep us from becoming better versions of ourselves. While there a lot of avenues to choose from, I’ve decided to focus on three areas which have helped me to live wider. These are, discomfort of entering new environments, of being the center of attention, and of having hard conversations. 


New environments


Do you remember the tingling feeling you had on the first day coming to a new school or workplace? Often driven by the anticipation of possible rejection within a new tribe, the butterflies circling your stomach can get you to live within the boundaries of known and safe without ever experiencing the full spectrum of what life has to offer. Taking up new hobbies, going to interesting events, and travelling to new places – especially by yourself – all require you to push past this fear that grips the explorer. 
I remember my first two-week English language summer camp on Isle of Wight at age ten. Almost the entire first week was filled with homesickness, loneliness and doubt. Everything felt so foreign and different. By the end of the two weeks, however, I wished I could have stayed longer. Next summer when going to another camp in Kent, armed with the knowledge that it will get better, the discomfort of new environment and people only lingered for a day or two, and I got to enjoy the experience much more. 
The best way to ease the discomfort of new environments is to experience more of them. Through consistent actions you wire the neural circuitry to take the dread as a cue to an action of moving forward, with the anticipation of a rewarding new experience. Eventually, this habit of bravely jumping at new opportunities becomes part of your identity, and massively expands your comfort zone. A good place to get started is regularly going to random meet-ups with people you don’t know. You’ll notice how it becomes easier and easier with every new situation. 
Another great teacher is travelling by yourself (especially backpacking) forcing you to face new surroundings and fellow travellers at every corner. While at first you may find the road terrifyingly lonesome, very soon the pain subsides and leaves you with a sense of curiosity and endless possibilities. 


Being in the spotlight


A highly related discomfort to new environments can arise when you’re the centre of attention. Whether it’s telling a story to a group of friends or giving a presentation in front of a packed auditorium, the fear of judging and potential shame gets our heart racing and hands sweaty. In the Stone Age, being left outside the tribe meant death so it’s no wonder we’ve evolved to be cautious of these risky situations. Yet becoming comfortable with holding the attention of others is a highly valuable skill in life. It’s the pre-requisite of communicating anything effectively, whether you’re suggesting a new way to practice coordination in a sports team, or passing down formative stories to your children at a dinner table. 
I’ve been lucky to have plenty of practice-ground throughout my education and career in entrepreneurship, sales, and customer success. Talking to new people day in day out and presentations in front of large audiences built up tolerance very effectively. Other great routes for numbing the discomfort of attention are joining a toastmaster group, improvisation theatre, doing stand up comedy, an amateur band, or any other form of purposefully seeking the beaming spotlight hitting your face. 

Deep thinking

We live in a world of distractions, and spending extended time on a single task takes a lot of effort. Once again, however, pushing through the barriers is where practically all progress resides. Whether it’s solving a complex math problem or deciding on the optimal business strategy, the novel and innovative solutions will almost always require a period of extended deep thinking, pushing way beyond where a part of your brain attempts to get you to do something more fun and easy. Even if you don’t reach the result during a single session, this effort imprints the challenge into your subconscious mind which will continue crunching even while your attention shifts to planning your lunch or the impending weekend.
Useful strategies (many picked up from Learning to Learn and Deep Work) include using the pomodoro timer, scheduling the deep thinking time into your calendar, focusing on the process of working instead of the end results, and being in an environment with minimal distractions. Like a muscle, your ability to focus and charge through the discomfort of mental exertion will grow with constant use. 

Tough conversations

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” -T. Ferriss

Depending on your personality (I’m certainly guilty), the mental discomfort of having hard conversations, especially with people you care about, can be completely paralysing. Confronting a friend on a behaviour that bothers you, bringing up a feeling of growing distance with your spouse, or telling someone in your team they need to step up their performance are all situations that can unlock a completely new level of relationship. At the same time, however, they can feel like risky and damaging.

While on the surface the hesitancy to ‘hurt’ others through raising a painful topic may seem unselfish and compassionate, in most cases the root cause is actually a deep craving for acceptance of others. It’s the reluctance to risk the affection built up, and displeasing those around you. Ironically, it seems like this need to please can be birthed from both lack of approval when growing up and gaining too much of it, becoming addicted to a constant stream of praise. 

In my experience there are two big realisations that really help with overcoming the  paralysis. Firstly, not being open about lasting feelings and thoughts is equivalent of lying and leads to a build up of resentment and separation in any relationship, work or personal. Only by addressing whatever is on your mind can you resolve the issue and move forward, usually stronger. Secondly, especially at workplace, not exposing potential avenues of growth for individuals is practically the same as stifling and sabotaging their development. Tough love is believing in the underlying potential of everyone and then holding them accountable for the high bar you know they can achieve. Everyone around you deserves this level of trust from you.


Bigger life

There aren’t many shortcuts for increasing the size of your existance. Discomfort will be a constant companion for anyone walking on the path of growth, so you better invite it to sit along the camp fire and make friends. You’ll notice that the more time you spend together, the more the road will open towards a larger life. 

One response to “The pursuit of discomfort: a road to a big life”

  1. There is so much true here. Familiarity breeds contempt. Whatever makes you uncomfortable is also your biggest opportunity for growth. Thank you for the reminder here. Change is good. Evolve or die.


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