How to Be Continuously Uncomfortable (and Why it's a Good Thing)
Updated: May 19, 2020
From comfortable liberal arts to 24/7 nervous-sweat business major
Growth doesn’t happen in your comfort zone. You know that. But, comfort zones are so… comfortable, that the fact is easy to ignore.
Starting university at Georgetown’s liberal arts college brought many challenges—finding decent food in the dining hall, adjusting to a roommate, waking up for 8AMs, and feeling lonely. But the academics, mostly science and writing courses, felt comfortable. My classes were difficult, but the assignments pushed the quantity and depth of work I was already used to: writing, research, and concept-based exams. I wasn’t expanding my skillset laterally.
So next, I took one class I'd never heard of (linguistics) and one class in the business school (marketing). Linguistics was new but called upon the same skills. The business school, though, was very different.
It involved group work (so much group work), professional presentations, quantitative analysis (hello Excel), an extensive business core (think accounting, strategy, finance…), a grade deflation curve, and a competitive culture.
I actually don’t enjoy most of those things. The business school building used to make me physically uncomfortable (I even bought a sweat-proof undershirt for extra stressful days…yeah).
From dipping my toe to jumping in
Despite the sweat, I internally transferred to the business school sophomore year. Why? Because by the end of my business class, I still felt uncomfortable. The business school was intimidating and had so much left to offer that I hadn’t experienced with just one course.
Each of the 11 the business core classes introduced me to new ways of thinking, study habits, and assignments I wasn’t already good at doing. The big pool of discomfort taught me useful, global, relevant material and skills. It taught me what business casual attire really means. And it taught me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable (or as much as that oxymoron exists).
As my catchphrase goes, though, it’s all about balance. Too much discomfort at once can hurt your confidence and self-efficacy. But too little doesn’t offer any opportunities for challenges to build them up. I made sure to include at least one class or activity per semester that brought me immediate joy, to balance the rest.
To identify the best uncomfortable pursuits for you, think about something you want to do but don’t feel ready for. That thing you can’t stop thinking about but wakes the butterflies in your stomach. And then find some way to take the first, uncomfortable step.
What worked for me
Measure your progress, not immediate results: My transfer resulted in a lower GPA and needing to ask for help more often. But along the way, I’ve learned to design amazing presentation decks, set up (functioning) financial models, and lead teams effectively. Each of these skills emerged gradually with practice, not on the first try.
Choose meaningful discomforts: Feeling uncomfortable is never pleasant in the moment, so engage with challenges that align with your goals. A business education allowed me to major in a field I love and want to pursue. I'm also extremely uncomfortable with camping, but I don’t intend to become a wilderness explorer. Any discomfort can build character, but be realistic and intentional with what you use your limited willpower for.
Lean on your support network: Sometimes, the process can be overwhelming. Just because you might not see anyone else struggling with the same challenges doesn’t mean you’re the only one or that your feelings won’t be understood. Communicate with your professors, mentors, friends, and communities. If you actively seek support, you’ll find it.
Document your journey and look back: Every once in a while, remember to look back and notice how far you’ve come. Feel proud, do a happy dance, and continue onwards.