Comfortably Uncomfortable: 7 Ways Seeking Discomfort Makes You Better

“How can seeking discomfort be a good thing for leaders?”

Hey, I’m here at a local park in Minnesota, getting ready to do my weekly tempo run.  Believe it or not, I think that there is a very close parallel between learning to run fast and becoming a better leader, and it has to do with discomfort.

Before I head out on this run, I’ll share with you some thoughts about why as leaders, if we are doing it right, we are constantly seeking out a place where we are comfortably uncomfortable.

[Watch the video above, or read the transcript below]

Just Run?  Or Run Fast?

Hi, I’m Ken from RapidStart Leadership where we try to help you learn new skills, build influence, and get more done through people. I’m glad you’re here. To become a distance runner it takes a lot of work.  Mostly it involves running lots and lots of miles.

And that’s fine if just covering the distance is your goal.  But if you want to get faster, there’s more work to be done.

One of the most effective workouts to improve speed for distance runners is called the Tempo Run.  After a good warmup, you speed up to what they call a Tempo Pace, and hold it there for 30 or 40 minutes..

Do this about once a week, and over time you’ll get a lot faster.  Why?  It has to do with this thing called Lactate Threshold.

Finding the Threshold

As muscles do work, they release byproducts like lactic acid.

Like a funnel under a faucet, at easy running paces, our blood stream can easily flush these byproducts out of the muscle.

The faster we run, the more work the muscles have to do, and the more lactic acid they produce.

At some point, the muscles begin to produce lactic acid faster than the blood stream can carry it away, and the acid begins to build up in the muscle.

This inflection point is called “lactate threshold.”

The rising acidity signals the brain that you are working too hard.  The brain wants to prevent injury, so it tells the muscle that it’s getting tired.  Fatigue sets in, and you have to slow down.

Comfortably Uncomfortable

So one of the tricks to running faster is to increase the body’s ability to wash away these byproducts. The way to do that is to spend a lot of “quality time” at the point just below lactate threshold.

Over time, the body adapts to the new demands – it increases its ability to wash away the byproducts, and that allows you to run faster and faster before fatigue sets in.  It’s like growing a larger funnel.

So to train to run faster, all we have to do is figure out what our tempo pace is.

Athletes and coaches use several methods, but the simplest is to describe it as a pace that feels “comfortably hard.”

Or as I like to think of it, “comfortably uncomfortable:” It’s hard enough that want to slow down, but not so hard that you can’t keep it up for at least for a little while.

Running at this comfortably uncomfortable pace stresses the system enough to force our bodies to adapt and become more capable.

A Bigger Funnel

I think it’s the same for our own personal development and our development as leaders.

Are we just doing the boring miles day after day?  Where’s the growth and stimulation in that?  We’re just in a rut; we never improve.  We avoid discomfort and then wonder why we don’t get any faster or better.

Instead, we need seek a point of comfortable discomfort that will cause us to adapt and improve.  When we go there and spend time there, we learn more, broaden our perspective, and increase our capacity to lead more effectively.  It’s like growing a bigger funnel.

Here are a few ways I think that living in a place of comfortable discomfort can make us better.

7 Discomfort Zones to Get Comfortable In

1. Learn a new skill.  As leaders and as people, it’s natural to hope others see us as skilled, as experts, as fully able in our field.  But we both know that’s not the case.  There are some things we know that we don’t know.  And some of them are critical to leading others.

So do a personal inventory, think about where you might have a skill gap, then take steps to learn, even if it makes you uncomfortable to admit that you don’t know everything.

2. Gain a new experience.  The higher we go, the more limited our experience can be, relative to everything we are getting involved with.  Yet people expect their leaders to be experienced.

We might be uncomfortable trying new things, but the best remedy is to get out from behind the desk, swallow our pride and get our hands dirty doing something we haven’t before.  New experiences will broaden our perspective and increase our credibility with those we are leading.

3. Go to the front lines.  We want to think that things are running smoothly; and if we don’t look too closely, we can just assume that they are.  But the only way to be sure is to go down to the front lines and see for ourselves.

It might make us uncomfortable to learn that our team’s training level isn’t where it should be, or to hear customer complaints about product or service.  But this is just the kind of discomfort we need in order to adapt and improve.

4. Build relationships.  This one’s key, but can be uncomfortable, especially if you tend toward the introvert side of the spectrum as I do.  The bottom line is that leading others is closely dependent on our relationship with them.

Get to know your people, learn their names and their kid’s activities, and what they like to do when they are not on the job.  And keep in mind that when they go through periods of struggle – a loss, or illness, or significant life change – those moments when it can be uncomfortable to talk – that’s when you can do the most good.

5. Ask for feedback.  And don’t let them get away with “that was good” – pick an area you want to improve in, sit down with someone who knows you and get them talking.

Ask open-ended questions about something specific you want to improve on, and keep asking until you start to feel some uncomfortable feedback – Now don’t get defensive at this point – this is the threshold moment you are looking for when you can begin to learn and adapt, so listen carefully, and take steps to get better.

6. Go to the problem.  You know that issue that you don’t want to deal with?  That thing you’ve been avoiding?  Yes, that one.  Go there.  Face it.  Yes, it will be uncomfortable.  No, it’s not going to go away or get better.

Get the facts, think about it rationally; approach it with humility and with ears and eyes open and mouth mostly shut.  Be ready to be uncomfortable, and work through it like an adult.

7. Admit mistakes.  This may be one of the hardest discomfort zones to enter into, but it’s also a critical one.  When we mess up, it’s best to just own it, take responsibility for what happened, and then do our best to fix whatever we broke.  Trying to hide, deny, or shift blame only breaks the bonds of trust on the team and weakens our ability to lead it.

Comfortably Uncomfortable – The Takeaway

Make no mistake, tempo training is hard work.  It’s uncomfortable, and if we’re not careful, we might find ourselves tempted to skip that workout.

But that’s the point where we have to stop and ask the question:  are we just running miles to run miles?  Are we happy with the way things are?  Or are we trying to become better versions of ourselves?  Better leaders?

If we want something more, we’re going to have to put a little stress on the system.   Force some adaptation to take place.  Make that funnel bigger.

Now it’s up to you:  which of these discomfort zones will you enter today?   Maybe ask yourself which one makes you the most uncomfortable?  That might be a good place to start.

Let me know in the comments section below, and I wish you all the best with your discomfort.

Now it’s time for a little tempo work of my own.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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