Ten years ago, I made the fairly radical decision to leave my stable, salaried-with-benefits job to figure out What I Want To Be When I Grow Up. It turns out that while I still enjoy a good technical discussion, reflecting my engineering background, I also really love developing people, which captures what I loved about my time in academia. Today, I run my own consultancy devoted to executive coaching and leadership development, a bit different than where I started my career.
I feel fortunate that my leap into the unknown has taken me to where I am today. However, creating a dramatically new path means that along the way, I’ve had countless opportunities, occasions, and situations that push me out of my comfort zone: meeting new contacts and clients, trying out new training materials, presenting to new audiences, and new responsibilities like marketing and business development on behalf of my own company. And each of these entails some level of discomfort. Since this is a normal part of my life now, I’ve had to learn how to live with discomfort. Here’s how I’ve done it:
Focus on the process. My default setting is to focus on the goal. Having a specific end state provides an amount of certainty and comfort – I know my destination, and I’ll know when I get there. But much of what I do now does not necessarily have a precise end state. For example, I could not have predicted at the beginning of 2017 the new opportunities that would develop later that year. But I know what process I need to follow to create new opportunities, like publish my original work, present at conferences, and expand my network. And that process in turn is the result of thoughtful strategic planning. If you don’t know where your path will lead exactly, and if that affects your sense of security, make sure you create a purposeful path, and have confidence in it.
Feel the fear and do it anyway. This is an age-old adage. But science explains how to understand our resistance so that we are not restricted by it. Change, even from positive events like a vacation, has been correlated with stress. This is thought to be an artifact of the days of earlier humans when we scanned our environment for changes that were life-threatening. Nowadays, any sort of change can trigger a similar fear/stress response, even if our lives are not in danger. In addition, we also have a demonstrated negativity bias. With change, we focus on what we are losing rather than new opportunity, and we tend to form negative impressions that are hard to dispel. All of this together means that during change, our minds and bodies want us to stay put. When you know how your physiology is conspiring to keep you static, you can choose to acknowledge it but not be limited by it.
“Get good” at stress. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress. She says that for many years she told people that they need to avoid stress. She now tells people to “get good” at stress. Alia Crum, Ph.D., and her colleagues have defined two “stress mindsets” – “Stress is Harmful” vs. “Stress is Enhancing.” People who were subject to stress mindset interventions, to maintain a “stress is enhancing” perspective, were more confident and performed better during stressful situations. They also showed a different physical response, of open, relaxed blood vessels despite higher levels of stress hormones. (Restricted blood vessels are associated with a “stress is harmful” mindset and poor cardiovascular health). Our “stress mindset” is a critical aspect of the impact stress has on us – what can you do to reframe your stress mindset?
You likely can’t eliminate all discomfort from your life. Instead, learn how to live with, and maybe even embrace, discomfort.