February 19, 2012

Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

Uncomfortable? Yes.  Smart? No.
When I'm bad at something, I feel like 10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag.  In other words, making mistakes makes me really uncomfortable.

Unfortunately for my feelings though, becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable may be the single most important thing I can do to become a better person.  Researchers and educators are beginning to appreciate that embracing failure and learning from our mistakes is a critical skill if we want to be our best.  And that appreciation is beginning to catch on in the popular press.

For example, when the New York Times Magazine published "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?", the piece quickly became one of the most emailed articles.  But it didn't stop there.  A month later, Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post reminded us "How we succeed by failing" and Jonah Lehrer pointed out that mistakes explain "Why [...] Some People Learn Faster".

Soon bloggers picked up the scent: Zen Habits suggested we face our failings (and in public) and LifeHacker showed geeks like me "How to Identify and Learn from Your Mistakes".  The punchline: coming face-to-face with our failings is essential to improve on them.  By putting our heads in the sand, we may feel better in the short term, but in the long term nothing changes.  If we're lucky, the ostrich strategy will allow us to feel all warm and fuzzy about ourselves.  If we're unlucky, our failings will come up and bite us.

Intellectually, I think we all appreciate that we need to work on our weak points to get better.  But all this great advice misses a critical reality: it sucks to suck.  Being bad at things is emotionally painful.

So what do we do?  My vote: train our brain to like the pain.  Not all uncomfortable things are bad, and we have the ability to re-label feelings consciously so that our feelings of pain become badges of honor.  So, instead of reacting to discomfort with "this sucks", we can tag on an addendum: "this sucks but look how tough I am".

Put simply: discomfort is proof we're willing to become better.  Being willing to withstand some pain shows that we're ready to change.  From now on, every time I make a mistake and feel like an idiot, I'm going to embrace the feeling: if I weren't pushing myself then I wouldn't be making mistakes.

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