The Growth Paradox:
As humans, we are wired to desire personal evolution and growth. We dream of ways to have an impact on the world around us that will bring personal purpose and meaning to our lives. These dreams take myriad forms and range from huge lofty goals like ending world hunger or becoming CEO, to smaller dreams like creating a safe and loving home for your children. But as diverse as our dreams may be, the one thing they have in common is they light within us the individual spark that sets our soul aflame.
Unfortunately, far too many of us never realize our dreams. We extinguish our own spark with our limiting thoughts and beliefs. We listen too closely to the internal voices that tell us all the reasons we can’t achieve our dreams, why they are silly, and why we should just stay where we are. We lay blame to the circumstances of our lives, but in reality it is we who are blocking ourselves from pursuing our personal path to success.
Why do we do this? Because while our dreams are beautiful to imagine, we know that there is some level of pain and discomfort we would need to experience in order to realize them. Achieving something we do not yet have requires us to grow and evolve into a new version of ourselves. But to evolve in this way, we need to get uncomfortable in the process. And part of the paradox of being human is that while we crave growth, we also crave comfort.
Living a life that is familiar and certain is like living in our favorite pair of sweatpants and comfy slippers. Our brain loves this familiar loungewear because it was designed to keep us free of discomfort and danger. We still share the part of our brains with our prehistoric ancestors that urged us to stay in the cave and away from predators who were trying to eat us for lunch. But in today’s world, staying in the comfort zone of the cave does not allow for the evolution and growth that will make manifest our goals and dreams.
You’ve likely heard some variation of this saying:
“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there”
And while intuitively we know this, we often avoid going after our dreams because the fear, anxiety and self-doubt that undoubtedly show up when we work toward something new wins out over the long-term vision of achieving our dreams.
The Growth Equation:
So how do we deal with this paradox? The formula is simple, it’s just not easy.
G = D x A (Growth = Discomfort x Action)
Your growth will be the product of the amount of discomfort you are willing to withstand, multiplied by the action you take. The hard truth is this: if you want to get different results, you are going to need to feel the pain and do the thing anyway. Your level of growth will be directly proportional to your level of discomfort.
But here is the good news. What we are trying to avoid by staying in our comfort zone – fear, anxiety, self-doubt – are merely negative feelings. That’s it! Just pesky electric impulses in your body. That’s the worst thing that is going to happen as you go after your goals. Contrast this with what happens when you allow yourself to stagnate. You likely feel regret, dissatisfaction, lack of confidence – negative feelings! The result is the same, except you do not get the thing you want! If you are going to be uncomfortable anyway, wouldn’t you rather do so in the pursuit of your goals and dreams?
So how do find a way out of this paradox?
Take Action in the Face of Discomfort
To get what you want, you need to take action in the face of uncomfortable emotions. Here are five steps to follow:
- Define your compelling reason. To be willing to experience the discomfort you will encounter in the face of growth, you need to find a reason that will be convincing enough to sustain you when things get challenging. It must be something that that excites you and truly captures your attention. Start by asking yourself why you want to achieve your goal. Why is this meaningful to you? What do you imagine will be different when you achieve it? As you answer these questions, try asking why several times to really get below the surface. When you have a reason that feels compelling, try it on. Will this spur you to action when you want to retreat? If not, keep going. If your reason is not compelling enough, you will likely find yourself giving up when you get uncomfortable.
- Identify the worst-case scenario. Fear of a negative outcome too often keeps us stuck where we are. We envision things going horribly wrong and imagine the risk to be far greater than the reward. However, we almost always conjure catastrophic scenarios that would never come to pass. So let your brain go there and examine the negative outcome you imagine. What is the worst thing that could happen? For example, let’s say you want to ask your boss for a raise. What is the absolute worst case scenario? Your boss gets angry and you get fired? Then you never find another job, default on your mortgage and end up living on the streets? Now ask yourself, how realistic is this outcome? If you are honest, probably not very. What is a more likely negative outcome? Perhaps she will say no, you don’t get the raise and you feel embarrassed and angry. And then ask yourself what happens if you don’t take the action to ask? You definitely don’t get the raise and you likely feel resentful. So if this is the case, which would you rather have? Trying and not getting the desired result, or failing ahead of time by not taking action in the first place?
- Acknowledge that discomfort will be there and commit to take action anyway. Even if you have a compelling reason, you won’t ever extinguish the negative emotions of fear, anxiety and worry when faced with the discomfort of growth. This is ok. Just acknowledge these feelings and keep taking action in spite of them. Get up and go do the thing even when you don’t feel like it. Recognize that you need to delay the gratification of your comfort zone for the long game and practice loving discipline for yourself to stay accountable. Do not beat yourself up for negative emotions, this will only compound them. Instead, take action in service of your compelling reason out of a desire to move forward and evolve.
- Invite failure. Recognize that failure is part of the deal and plan for it. Invite it. Failures are out best teachers, they show us things that won’t work so that we can discover other solutions that will. As Albert Einstein said “a person who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” If you are reaching far enough, you will fail. Your primitive brain will not like this – it will tell you it is not safe and encourage you to hide. Do not listen to these lies! Just acknowledge them and keep moving forward. Do not beat yourself up for failures, celebrate them learning opportunities. Becoming paralyzed by failure will only keep you stuck.
- Enjoy the journey. We often tell ourselves that only once we achieve our goal will we be truly happy. However, that happiness is always fleeting and we tend to move the goal post one we get to our intended outcome. To set yourself up in this way will only leave you disillusioned. Instead, remember that there is beauty in the process of growth. Stay present in the process and acknowledge your achievements along the way. Appreciate yourself for demonstrating strength in the face of discomfort, and acknowledge who you have become in the pursuit of your dream.
Taking action in the face of discomfort is a skill that you can build and apply to get anything you want in life. It is like a muscle – the more you train it, the stronger it gets. Remember, discomfort will be present whether you go after your dreams, or if you push them to the side. If discomfort is coming anyway, I invite you to choose the kind that will lead to growth and go for it.