Career success strategy: Discomfort tolerance and practicing learn to become comfortable with discomfort.
Whenever we are trying something new, going out of our comfort zones, our primitive mind, whose job is to keep us physically safe and alive, might pipe up to say that it is important to not take a risk, to not stick our necks out, to not create trouble.
Taking action that, to the primitive mind, seems to be an unnecessary risk or creating discomfort makes it upset because risks can lead to vulnerability, and, in the world of biological survival, even death.
As professionals in the 21st century work world, however, and knowing what we know about how the primitive mind and the reasoning mind works, it is important for us to understand that what the primitive mind deems to be a “risk” is often overblown, out of proportion.
It isn’t a fault of the primitive mind to be hesitant about taking risks. That IS it’s job: to ensure that the human does not engage in unhelpful behavior that leads to less than ideal consequences (like going to explore whether a tiger is friendly and ending up being dinner).
We want to learn how to use our reasoning mind, our reasoning capacities to assess whether the action we are taking is really, truly severely risky in terms of our very survival. Once we understand that the fear of the consequence of the supposedly “risky” behavior is out of proportion to the actual level of risk, then we are able to manage discomfort productively and free up emotional energy to take helpful action.
For example, a candidate is sitting down to write a cover letter. The primitive mind does not like the discomfort of not knowing the outcome of this activity and knowing that failure to get an interview will be quite painful. So, it goes into protection mode and discomfort avoidance mode and says, don’t write it yet; it is too scary. Why do something that is potentially painful? Let’s go watch a show on Netflix, instead.
Emotional discomfort is not an easy thing for our primitive minds to manage. It is our reasoning minds that we need to call to action to conduct a risk assessment. The reasoning mind has to review the data and come to a conclusion: is the activity of writing a cover letter, even if it doesn’t lead to a job interview, really a risk to my very existence? Once rational thinking is in place, it is then possible to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing the outcome and being afraid of the pain of a negative outcome and STILL engage in the activity of writing the cover letter (and when we do, the joy of completing an action step is immense, as we all know!).
Discomfort tolerance, like any other career success skill, takes practice. We want to be careful and gentle when practicing putting ourselves in situations of discomfort and completing tasks that make us uncomfortable or fearful. It is important to engage in discomfort tolerance intentionally and repeatedly.
This is because when we take an action that is uncomfortable, for example writing and submitting a cover letter, sending off an e-mail, or conducting a phone call with someone we don’t know and the sky doesn’t fall, we then grow in self confidence simply from having engaged in that challenging, uncomfortable task. That experience then gives us the courage to do it again, eventually with greater levels of intensity (like sending off two, then three cover letters in one day!)
Participating in an action repeatedly through discomfort, irrespective of immediate outcome, helps us grow in our skills, competencies, and self-confidence because just the doing of it means that we are re-training our minds, giving more strength to the reasonable mind and providing data to the primitive mind so it can remember next time that the activity (of writing a cover letter or making a phone call) wasn’t so risky, after all.
Discomfort tolerance training is key to career (and academic) success because it is the way we can face barriers, motivate ourselves, take action, and keep moving forward toward achieving our goals. It isn’t fun at the beginning but, as with most things, once we get the hang of it, discomfort tolerance can take us a long way in being productive and having career and academic satisfaction and success.