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Discomfort Is What You Feel When You're Growing

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My husband and I recently spent a week in Hong Kong visiting my little sister, who spent the summer teaching there at a local university.

Upon our arrival, we consulted with a friend of hers to plan our first day in the city. “One classic Cantonese experience,” he told us, “is going to a dim sum restaurant for brunch. The most authentic one in town is Lin Heung.” When we perked up at the idea of an endless buffet of bite-sized food, he cautioned, “just to warn you, it might be a little intimidating.”

As intrepid travelers, we were undeterred. In fact, we decided that if we didn’t go to Lin Heung, we would no longer be intrepid travelers.

But the moment we stepped foot in the restaurant, we were in above our heads. Dozens of locals were crammed around dingy communal tables. It was hot, loud, and chaotic. We were the only Westerners there.

Related: Here's Why You Need to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Our first challenge was to get seated. We tried to grab an empty table, but were immediately shooed away for undisclosed reasons. When we finally found a place to sit, the people at our table took one look at us and started hysterically laughing. I couldn’t remember a time I’d felt more uncomfortable.

Seeing my visible distress, my sister enthusiastically offered, “Let’s get some food!” at which point we quickly learned why one local food critic called Lin Heung a real life version of the Hunger Games. You have to make a beeline to the food trolleys as they wheel out of the kitchen, claw your way through the crowd, and grab whatever you can before the food is gone.

It was kind of a hoot. 

After we got over our initial shock, we decided that eating at Lin Heung was actually pretty fun. Sure, we were uncomfortable. But we were experiencing something completely new, a slice of Cantonese culture that we’d have never seen at any tourist spot.

As I often tell my coaching clients, a little discomfort can go a long way to help us learn, grow and change. Time and again, research has shown that mild to moderate levels of discomfort can supercharge performance, creativity and learning.

We humans are creatures of habit. Our routines help us feel at ease, in control and safe. But routines literally dull our brains. When we do something more than six times, our brains start to take the most efficient (read: lazy) path. Have you ever driven the same route dozens of times? The first few trips, you likely paid close attention. But after a week or two, your brain probably went on auto-pilot. I’m often shocked at how little I remember after driving frequently traveled routes.

Related: Go Ahead, Destroy Your Comfort Zone

But if habit is a curse, novelty is a blessing. When we experience new things, we create new neural pathways that kick start our creativity. For example, the week before I went to Hong Kong, I was having terrible writer’s block. It was no coincidence that the evening of our dim sum experience, a wave of inspiration hit me, and pages began to pour out.

In addition to making us creative geniuses, new experiences enhance our memory. In one study, participants were shown three types of images: novel, familiar, and very familiar. When researchers tested participants’ memory, the best results emerged when people saw a novel image followed by a familiar one. Even though common wisdom suggests that rote repetition helps us remember things, mixing in new information may be a superior strategy.

Even the act of being uncomfortable can be a reward in and of itself. New situations trigger a unique part of our mid-brain that then releases dopamine, one of nature’s feel-good chemicals. But here’s what’s interesting: this region of the brain is only activated when we see or experience completely new things. Some examples:

  • Putting yourself in a totally new situation (like my Dim Sum experience).
  • Making new connections (like joining a new club, or sitting at a different lunch table).
  • Disregarding what others think of you (like dining alone or dancing with reckless abandon).
  • Breaking a habit by trying something new (like taking a different tactic with a problem employee).
  • Taking a risk (like suggesting a new idea at work or asking someone on a date).

For most people, just thinking about these things can feel draining. I remember one coaching client of mine: a bright, motivated engineer who was leading a major business unit of his company. Over the course of our work together, he’d been diligent about trying new behaviors, taking risks and forging new relationships. He’d found it rewarding but exhausting. As we were winding down our coaching program, he earnestly asked, “So, does this mean I’m done?”

I looked at him quizzically. He continued, “I mean, when can I say, ‘That’s it—I’m done growing as a leader?’” With a playful smile, I retorted, “probably when you’re dead.” He chuckled and conceded, “Fair enough.”

We often have knee jerk reactions when we’re outside our comfort zone: to fight, to run, to shut down. That reaction feels good in the short term, but robs us in the long term. Have you ever had a life-changing experience where you didn’t feel at least a little uncomfortable?

So the next time you’re outside your comfort zone, try saying to yourself, “I’m uncomfortable. This is GREAT! It’s probably going to have a payoff.” And if you rarely find yourself saying that on a given week, it might be time to go to Lin Heung! 

Related: You Need to Conquer Your Comfort Zone Before It Kills You