25% discomfort

He was an old man. He seemed interesting and energetic. He was charming, funny, intelligent. And as he left the restaurant, a crazy thought came into my mind. An idea involving this man who I’ve known for about two minutes.

“It’d be good to interview him.”

I spent the next five minutes agonising over this idea. Should I ask him? How would I do it? What would I say? What if it makes him feel awkward? What if he says no? Will I regret it if I don’t?

In the end, I did it. The first that words tumbled out of my mouth made no sense. And after he walked away, I noticed that the room was quite warm. But I did it. I approached a stranger and asked him if I could sit down and talk to him about his life.

I think that qualifies as what the self-help gurus call “doing things that make you uncomfortable.”

The logic behind “do things that make you uncomfortable” is straightforward. The things that you find uncomfortable are at the boundaries of your skill or experience. Which means you can use the feeling of (dis)comfort as a compass to discover and expand your capacities. Makes sense right? But, as usual, this idea gets taken too far. The extension of it is this: “You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.” 

When anyone says this phrase, what they mean has nothing to do with comfort. It has to do with frequency. What they’re trying to say is that you should do more things that make you uncomfortable, more often.

In Cal Newport’s Deep Work, he narrates an anecdote about a practicing musician. The guitar player is playing the same song, over and over again, forcing himself to play it faster and faster. He’s breathing heavy and sweating from the exertion he’s demanding of himself. This anecdote demonstrates the core concept of deliberate practice. Strain. Or the feeling of discomfort.

But that anecdote is only a snapshot. Is the musician spending all his time like that? Expending immense energy on a difficult task twenty four hours a day? Of course not. In fact, the best in the world—be they musicians, artists, athletes, executives, scientists, whatever—probably spend a maximum of 25% of their time in such states. The rest of the time? They’re doing what they’re good at. They’re doing what their occupation demands of them. Which means they’re spending only a chunk of their time being uncomfortable and pushing the boundaries of their ability.

So, let’s take this nonsense about “being comfortable being uncomfortable” from abstraction to reality. To get better, you need to spend more time doing more things that make you uncomfortable. Specifically, aim to spend a quarter of your time straining and pushing yourself. 

The rest of the time? Do what you do best.