Every morning, I turn my shower as cold as possible for the last minute I’m under. Why would I torture myself like that? Apart from the proven health benefits, there’s another reason I do this. Let me explain…
Technological development has done amazing things for us. It has made many aspects of our lives incredibly easy, convenient and comfortable. We can order instant pizza with the push of a button, never have to get lost again thanks to google maps, and can even find our next date with a single swipe on our phones. We live in a world with tools and commodities that our ancestors could never have imagined – even a few decades ago.
To be clear, I am eternally grateful for the state of our society our predecessors built for us. However, when everything is made to be optimally comfortable, we begin to think that we need that in every aspect of our lives. Too much comfort has a downside though, or rather, discomfort has an unexpected upside…
Here’s the thing: Exposing yourself to temporary discomfort increases your long-term comfort zone – And the bigger your comfort zone, the more comfortable you are in more situations. For example:
- An awkward person with social anxiety who exposes him/herself to social interactions becomes more comfortable being around and speaking with other people.
- A homebody person who travels a lot becomes more comfortable with different cultural customs, foods, and lifestyles.
- A sedentary person who goes to the gym more often becomes more comfortable moving their body and doing sports.
- A bullied person who speaks up for him/herself becomes more confident in dealing with harassment.
The danger of seeking out comfort too much is that it inflates your comfort zone and makes you very sensitive to discomfort. So, the more discomfort you introduce in a certain area of your life, the more you train yourself to feel at ease when a new uncomfortable scenario unfolds.
Don’t Remain Incomplete
Interestingly enough, it is not only your metaphorical “Comfort Zone” that will grow. You will also literally change and grow physiologically:
“Researchers have recently discovered that new genes in the central nervous system turn themselves on when an organism is placed (or places itself) in a new situation. These genes code for new proteins. These proteins are the building blocks for new structures in the brain. this means that a lot of you is still nascent, in the most physical of senses, and will not be called forth by stasis. You have to say something, go somewhere and do things to get turned on. And, if not… you remain incomplete” – Jordan B. Peterson
So, when you are working on expanding your comfort zone (placing yourself in a new unknown situation), you are literally building your brain into something better and stronger than it was before. You are also increasing the number of opportunities you will be able to take in life and the experiences you will be able to have – simply because you have gained the ability, and therefore the options, to do more things you’re comfortable with.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have” – Tim Ferris
I think this is a very accurate statement by Tim since uncomfortable conversations are often necessary when we want to resolve difficult situations in our lives. For example:
- Being honest to a friend about the mistake he/she has made, even when the truth hurts
- Asking for a raise to your boss, or a boss firing a well-performing employee when the company is not doing well.
- Daring to ask that girl out you’ve always liked, risking that she might blow you off
- Coming out of the closet and telling your parents, while they might not approve
Going outside of our comfort zone is often scary. It is something we fear because it could have unknown (or known) consequences and potentially hurt us. But remember, taking that leap can reap huge benefits in the long run. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once famously said:
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s most often worth taking the initial hit of discomfort, from which you recover, learn, and uncover new opportunities. Does it for example really matter in the overall course of your life that you got rejected by a stranger compared to the possibility of meeting the love of your life?
Finding Optimal Anxiety
However, there is also such a thing as too much discomfort. Some actions can be so intimidating that they paralyze us, and damage us to a point that we never want to get close to stepping outside of our comfort zone again. Sometimes, putting too much pressure on ourselves when we are exposed to too many stimuli leads to long term exhaustion or even a burn-out.
That is why we need to find a space called “Optimal Anxiety”. It is in this state that we achieve maximum performance and continually pushes our boundaries in a healthy way. This state was first mentioned by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson in 1908 after their famous mice experiment. They found that stimulation improved learning ability and performance of the mice, but only up to a certain level – A level now known as Optimal Anxiety.
Therefore, it is important to seek that level of productive discomfort, that produces the right amount of anxiety, in which learn and grow optimally.
So, what do we do then?
If you want some inspiration, we can go back to The Four Hour Workweek. In his book, Tim does not only describe the usefulness of discomfort, but he also provides his readers with practical advice about how to condition yourself to discomfort and overcome it. Something he calls “Comfort Zone Challenges”. They are a list of exercises designed to make you less susceptible to different types of anxiety. Challenges like:
- Asking the number of a random girl on the street.
- Going on a 24 hour fast.
- Asking 10% off the next coffee you buy.
- Taking a cold shower during winter for a full minute.
Simple actions that can help you cultivate a mindset that just trying something new is better, physical unease not necessarily bad, and not worrying about how your behavior looks to others.
At the time of writing his book more than 12 years ago, Tim might have been on to something. A YouTube Channel called Yes Theory has now taken the concept of discomfort challenges and turned it into an entirely new movement with millions of followers.
The founders of Yes Theory started their channel to inspire and encourage people to say yes to doing things that are outside their comfort zones – in order to grow as individuals. Their life’s motto: “Seek Discomfort”.
They have a series of videos in which they have to survive for 24 hours in a certain city with no money, depending on the kindness of strangers for food and a place to sleep. They also explore abandoned places, walk marathons with no training, go cage-less shark diving, and let darts decide where to travel next.
These YouTubers seek out activities that expose themselves to personal fears and uncomfortable situations – whether it is physical, social or mental – Anything that challenges their status quo. It is their belief that exposing yourself to your fears is an incredibly valuable growth-inducing form of discomfort and leads to living a more fulfilling life.
Seek Your Zones To Grow
Of course, everybody has its own unique sets of comfort zones of different sizes. What is no big deal for one person, can be someone else’s greatest fear. So ask yourself: In what area of your life have you gotten too comfortable, and are you holding yourself back from improving? What is it that you fear, but admire other people for doing?
Realize that you might not even be aware of how locked in the comfort zone(s) you are in a certain aspect of your life. Get a good look at where you’re at, and where you want to be. Then seek discomfort and find that optimal level of anxiety.
I admit it’s easier said than done – but that’s the whole point. You’re sacrificing short term comfort for long term benefits. And know this: Research shows that people at the end of their lives regret the things that they didn’t do more than the things that they did. People who rarely dare to push the boundaries of their comfort zones will have fewer opportunities in life, fewer experiences, and therefore less special memories to remember and interesting stories to tell.
Speaking from personal experience, going abroad to Singapore alone for half a year initially induced a healthy dose of anxiety. I had no idea what to expect, and what was waiting for me. But this experience gave me the chance to explore many beautiful countries in South-East Asia, improved my English and it introduced me to an amazing new group of friends.
I like to think about it this way:
We’re creatures that lived in dark caves millions of years ago, roaming the plains of Afrika, not knowing whether we’d have enough food for the day, have a safe place to sleep, or whether a relative would die from predators or disease. We’re made to endure discomfort, to overcome it, and grow a little stronger in the aftermath.
So Seek Discomfort – it’s part of being human and will make you feel alive.
Thanks for reading!