Getting Comfortable with Un-comfort

As the Chicago Cubs prepare to win a back-to-back World Series titles this year, their charismatic manager is telling his young champions to focus on being uncomfortable.

“You really want to avoid the potential for complacency,” Joe Maddon told CNN. “If you’re uncomfortable, growth continues. If you’re comfortable, growth diminishes.”

In athletics, the benefits of putting yourself in uncomfortable positions is pretty straightforward. If you want to win, you’re better off training hard and pushing yourself to your limits. This forces your heart and muscles to grow stronger and more practiced. Discomfort also keeps you in the moment. An athlete who gets too comfortable might miss important cues or make costly assumptions.

Of course, this dynamic doesn’t just work for athletes. Pushing our limits mentally or emotionally by placing ourselves in uncomfortable circumstances (willingly or otherwise) can also generate tremendous growth. One of my early mentors understood this well, as much as I hated to admit it at the time.

When I first asked Andrew to be my mentor and help me transition into a new field, I was incredibly excited. I couldn’t wait for him to take me under his wing and teach me all of his secrets to success.

He did these things, of course, but not in the way I expected. Instead of handing new techniques to me on a silver platter, he made me discover them myself. When I delivered results I thought to be top quality, he told me to do it over and better. When we attended networking events together, I was left to make my own way without any introductions from him. I thought I was gaining a new and supportive friend, but instead I felt like I got a cold and indifferent companion.

In those first few months, I was went from anger to frustration to despondency — and back again. My mind raced with questions, “What’s the point of having a mentor if he’s not going to help me?” “Why doesn’t he think I’m good enough?” and the most insidious, “What if I really am a waste of his time?”

When, again and again, Andrew refused to act as I wanted, I grew stressed out and uncomfortable with the whole situation. I regretted asking Andrew to be by mentor, but saw no way to get out of the arrangement without looking like a quitter.

Eventually, I just gave up caring about what Andrew thought of me or my work. In fact, I started to rebel. Rather than seeing Andrew as someone to emulate, I set out to prove that he was wrong — wrong about business and especially wrong about about me.

That’s when everything changed.

Instead of trying to prove to Andrew how great I was, I just did the work to the best of my ability, the way that made sense to me. When he gave me feedback I made corrections dispassionately, without getting hooked or feeling resentful. Rather than waiting for Andrew to introduce me to his contacts, I reached out to them on my own. In short, I just acted like myself. As my behavior changed so did my mood. The stress dissipated, and the depression eased.

After a few weeks of just being my authentic self, Andrew warmed to me. He never fully became that mentor that I had expected, but our relationship had less friction and was less frustrating for me personally. By the end of the year, I had learned everything I had hoped to learn from Andrew, and so much more — about the field, and about myself.

For our final meeting, he took me to dinner to celebrate. He was friendly, warm and generous — all the things I had expected him to be as a mentor. Halfway through our meal, I stopped him mid-sentence and asked where this Andrew had been all year.

“You didn’t need me to be your friend,” he replied. “That wouldn’t have helped you at all. What you needed was a challenge that would force you to prove yourself, to yourself.”

Andrew wisely recognized that the best way for me to grow, and do it quickly, was to put a certain amount of pressure on me and hold back the praise and acknowledgement I so desperately sought. What I interpreted as a lack of engagement was in fact a very intentional projection of indifference, and through it he created a vacuum which I instinctively filled with my own momentum and self-assurance. The warm, supportive relationship I wanted would have been nothing but a crutch for me.

Now, in hindsight, I can see that Andrew was incredibly engaged, every step of the way. A good mentor stretches you into places you have not yet ventured. And had I been a different type of person, Andrew would have acted differently. If I truly didn’t have the skills, he said he would have taught them to me. If I was a person who overcommitted myself, or couldn’t meet deadlines, he might have attempted to temper my activities and help me focus on what really mattered. No matter what tack he chose, the result would have still been to challenge me, and likely put me in a place of discomfort until I grew accustomed to the new skills, or thought processes. The gift of his mentorship was to meet me where I was, and to create a path that would get me where I needed to go.

Life is constantly presenting us with mentors. Some of them are deep and last a lifetime; others might be ad hoc encounters — someone standing in front of us at the grocery store, or driving behind us in the fast lane — that linger just long enough to spur growth or change in our lives we didn’t even know we needed. Even those fleeting moments can leave a lasting impression if we are open to learning from them.

No matter how a mentor shows up, their purpose (whether they know it or not) is to stretch us beyond our normal experiences. While this may make us feel temporarily out of our comfort zone, the change they help create in us broadens our horizons, and offers us new options and new ways of experiencing the world.

The un-comfort zone can be a scary place to be sure. And we don’t always have to venture into it. However, when we are presented with such challenges (especially those that we know deep down we need), we get to choose how we respond to the catalyst. Do we rise to the challenge or shrink from it? The choice we make is a measure of who we are, and who we want to be.

Take a moment to think about the people in your life who have been your teachers, either formally or by happenstance — perhaps even despite your resistance. Acknowledge how you have changed for knowing them. Recognize the influence they have had on you, whether you knew it at the time or not. While you’re at it, take time this week to offer them gratitude and appreciation for how they helped you to grow into a better you.

“You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometime you find / You get what you need” — Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

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