I think I’ve stumbled upon an unlikely ally in this journey of life.
As I look back, it’s been supporting me for decades, but I didn’t always recognize it. And now, as I seek it out more frequently, its assistance is even more powerful.
This unlikely friend is discomfort.
It was May of 1991, and I was 11 the first time we met. My Mom and I were at Wendy’s, enjoying my childhood favorite salad bar, as she explained to me what she’d been experiencing. She was sick, but the doctors weren’t sure exactly what was wrong. Mom did her best to calm me, but somewhere inside, I knew that everything had changed. Life as I had known it was over, and I was scared.
Just like the Mucinex commercials, discomfort moved right in, accompanying me nearly every day. I didn’t welcome it, but I did use it as fuel. The fire that propelled me through some significant progress also caused me to burn with anger. I fought the discomfort at every recognition for almost exactly a decade. At my grandfather’s funeral nine years and eleven months later, I quit fighting and accepted the journey I’d been assigned. I couldn’t yet put it into words, but I instantly realized it was not a curse, but a gift.
Looking back now, I realize that timing could not have been better. I graduated from college in 1999, into a thriving professional world very different from the uncertainty I would have faced just two years later. I also gave birth to a wonderful daughter in 1998, before the busyness of work and life would cause me to question whether I could have children. The intense fuel of discomfort had sped up my life, sparing me from prolonged struggles waiting for me in the future.
Another decade and a half would pass before I realized that my friend was still by my side.
Last Monday, I finished the TriRock Austin Triathlon Sprint distance – swimming 700 meters, biking 16.7 miles, and running 3.1 miles. The start was an agonizing wait, with my mind questioning why I’d subject myself to this, and my sluggish body in complete agreement. Entering the water was even worse. I recoiled at the milky brown water I saw through my goggles, its earthy taste when I couldn’t avoid the wake of the men’s wave surpassing me from behind, and the patches of hydrilla that felt like swimming through a cargo net.
At 100 meters, I watched the two women in front of me reach for the support kayaks and wondered if I should do the same. But something inside willed me to keep going. I’d trained well for the swim and looked forward to seeing how much I’d improved. At about 550 meters, I hit another dense patch of the clingy seaweed, but this time, I didn’t panic. I knew I could get through it, and at that moment, I also knew I could finish the entire course. I just had to endure it. Less than two and half hours later, it was done.
I suffered through the four hour drive home that evening, knowing that a full day of intense conversations were up next. We were introducing a change to our company leadership structure, and there was plenty to explain and lots of feelings to acknowledge. (As an introvert and a relatively new CEO, this is the area I needed the most development in.) I didn’t look forward to the conversations, but I didn’t dread them either. I realized that I would just need to handle them one by one, enduring the discomfort of the first few words before I could relax into the healthy conversation.
I also realized that in my infinite wisdom, I’d scheduled a dentist appointment that afternoon – not just a cleaning, but full x-rays as well. I’d been doing progressively better, but it was less than five years ago that I would cry through simple cleanings. The discomfort of the sounds and smells was intense. This time, I sat down in the chair and was so relaxed, I nearly fell asleep.
Leaving the dentist’s office, I realized something was very different, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
In my meditation time the next morning, it clicked instantly. Instead of fighting it, I had begun to embrace discomfort. I could endure suffering and not feel broken.
In fact, I could see how it made me stronger. After the triathlon and the grueling day of conversations, the dentist was a walk in the park. And that was just one example. I realized that discomfort was becoming a typical part of my day.
From restless meditation sessions to challenging tri workouts to a willingness to face work conflicts quickly and directly, I was learning how to function even when the fire alarms in my brain were blaring loudly. Just like when they go off in a building, I learned to question just a bit and realize the ones in my mind were usually false too. If I’d just hang in there a minute or two, they’ll quiet down.
Here’s the really amazing part: the endurance is transferable.
If you’re stuck on something particular, pick an unrelated discomfort and overcome it.
If you’re scared of the dentist or the doctor, take cold showers. If you have trouble with conversations or feedback, try boxing or martial arts. If you have trouble staying in your chair to write, try long distance cycling. If you’re struggling with consistent physical workouts, try meditation.
Do that a few times, then try your original challenge again. I’m betting you can do it.
(And if you’re not sure what you’re struggling with, you’re probably not growing. Pick any one of these areas of discomfort to restart your journey.)