My colleagues who run the @StanfordBiz feed asked me to contribute a few words of advice for the members of the Class of 2015 (who graduate tomorrow!), and the comments above were the result.
The importance of increasing our "comfort with discomfort" is a major theme in the courses I'm involved in at the GSB, in the work I do with leaders in my coaching practice, and in my own life. But why is it so important? And what does it entail in practice?
Why Get Comfortable with Discomfort?
Our emotions serve as a biasing system that helps us process large amounts of data very rapidly, and in general this system works well. We're attracted to situations and experiences that generate positive emotions, and that's usually a good thing--it certainly plays an important role in perpetuating the species. And we avoid situations and experiences that generate negative emotions, and, again, that's usually a good thing--it certainly helps to keep us safe and free from harm.
But emotions aren't always accurate gauges of good and bad, and we can easily be led astray by our emotions and other psychological biases. Our negativity bias has served us well as a species, but it can be profoundly unhelpful for any one of us as individuals in a given moment. Developmental experiences may trigger negative emotions in us as adults in situations where they're not truly warranted. If we perceive an interpersonal interaction as threatening in some way, we respond emotionally and physiologically as if we were facing a literal threat to our physical person--a phenomenon known as social threat--which is often counterproductive. And under stress we're cognitively impaired, so our ability to accurately interpret a situation and the threat it poses can be substantially diminished.
So while a sense of discomfort is at times an accurate signal we need to pay close attention to, at other times it's a false alarm that we need to ignore. And this latter scenario is often the case in our professional lives, particularly when we're operating in a dynamic environment, tackling a new task, engaged in conflict, or stepping up into a bigger job. All of these situations tend to generate negative emotions, and our habitual response is to alleviate the discomfort--but this is often the wrong thing to do.
We may resist change at the very moment when we need to embrace it. We may shy away from new responsibilities and fail to develop to our full potential. We may avoid conflict and give away value or leave ourselves open to exploitation. And we may turn down or ignore big opportunities and severely limit our horizons.
A powerful tool at our disposal in all of these cases is to increase our "comfort with discomfort"--to manage our negative emotions in such a way that we're open to what they might be telling us without feeling governed by them or driven to respond reflexively. Note that by "manage" I don't mean "suppress"--efforts to ignore an emotion or deny that we're having it can actually increase its intensity and duration. Instead, we can take active steps to deal with discomfort and other negative emotions more effectively in the moment, and over time we can expand our capacity to tolerate them.
What Does This Look Like in Practice?
Here are three ways we can manage discomfort in the moment:
Research by psychologists and neurologists--notably James Gross and Rebecca Ray at Stanford and Kevin Ochsner at Columbia--on what they call cognitive appraisal shows that our conscious thoughts about a situation have a significant impact on our emotional experience. In other words, the meanings we assign to the various aspects of a situation influence our emotional response--and thus we can manage our negative emotions by "reframing" or re-interpreting the situation.
This involves what psychologists call physiological modification--taking active steps to change our emotional state--as well as response modification--making conscious choices in how we express ourselves. More specifically, when we sense discomfort, we can do the following: take deeper, slower breaths; speak more slowly and monitor our tone of voice; sense our non-verbal signals and attend to our body language; and notice the focus of our attention, and shift it away from sources of distress.
Talking About Feelings
Two lobes in the brain known as the amygdalae are associated with discomfort and other negative emotions--it's far too simplistic to say that they're the source of those emotions, but fMRI studies have shown that the experience of negative emotion is accompanied by high levels of activity in these regions, and as those emotions recede the level of activity in the amygdalae diminishes. Talking about our feelings, known to psychologists as affect labeling, seems to disrupt the corresponding brain activity, making it easier to manage those feelings more effectively. While there are other ways to accomplish this, such as removing ourselves from the situation and cooling off for a few minutes, talking about our discomfort has a greater impact on our ability to manage those feelings and is often more useful in situations when it would be impractical to step away.
We can also take steps to increase our capacity to tolerate discomfort over time:
Meditation and other mindfulness practices can have a significant impact on our ability to manage emotions. Research by neuroscientists and psychiatrists--notably Richard Davidson of the University of Washington, and Jeffrey Schwartz and Daniel Siegel of UCLA, among others--suggests that consistent meditation causes changes in brain structures associated with emotion, a process known as self-directed neuroplasticity, and that meditating for just a few minutes a day can yield meaningful results.
In this context meditation isn't a break or a respite from stress; it's a workout. While there are an endless number of different meditation routines, most involve repeatedly noticing the thoughts and emotions that are distracting us and returning our attention to a specific object of focus, such as our breathing. This occurs over and over again in a meditation session, even a brief one, and I liken it to lifting a very light weight countless times--that's the workout.
Consistent meditation can have a substantial impact on our "comfort with discomfort" in several ways. It heightens our physiological self-awareness, allowing us to sense signs of discomfort sooner, when negative emotions are easier to manage. And the repetitive process of directing our attention away from distractions and toward a deliberately chosen object is precisely the task we face in any uncomfortable situation, when we may want to alleviate our discomfort by ignoring the source of our distress or fleeing in search of reassurance.
While meditation is the most direct form of mindfulness practice, activities such as time in nature or journaling can also play a helpful role by encouraging us to reflect on our inner experience. And in addition to Mindfulness, a growing body of research has emerged in recent years indicating that Exercise, Sleep hygiene, and Stress reduction all help us manage our emotions more effectively--a set of activities that I think of as Getting MESSy. (It's a bad pun, but I love it.)
Regular exercise and sufficient sleep not only insure that we begin each day fully prepared to cope with the challenges we may face, but also appear to increase our overall tolerance for discomfort and other negative emotions. And by eliminating unnecessary sources of stress--for example, by streamlining our morning routine, or adjusting our commute--we "plug leaks" and preserve our finite amounts of attention and emotional energy for situations that truly merit these precious resources.
Ultimately the utility of all these practices is contingent on our ability to retrain our reflexive response to discomfort. We tend to view discomfort adversarially, as a foe to be vanquished or avoided, but an alternative is to view it as a sign of something important for us to learn, or an indicator of a meaningful growth opportunity. When something feels daunting, we can get curious. When something feels scary, we can step forward.