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Peak Performance # 29 | Comfortable vs. Uncomfortable Discomfort
A Theory on Why High Performers Plateau
If you want to be accomplished in anything, you have to become comfortable being uncomfortable. High performers understand that discomfort comes with the stressors that drive growth. They bask in the fire of discomfort regularly.
When you lean into discomfort, your experience of discomfort varies based on the context. Discomfort can be comfortable discomfort or it can be uncomfortable discomfort.
I’ve come to see a fairly simple pattern in high performers who hit a plateau, whether that be in performance, wellbeing, or happiness: When high performers plateau, they’re avoiding an area of uncomfortable discomfort.
Take, for example, a runner who is hitting a plateau. Their coaches tell them that in order to break through, they must start lifting weights. But they hate lifting weights. It’s new, they’re not sure that they’re doing it right, and they don’t like how it makes them feel.
This person is able to bear heroic levels of discomfort in one domain, like running 26 miles, but will shy away from marginal levels of discomfort in another, weight training.
Examples of this are all over the business world.
Take a founder who is top 1% in their area of expertise. They put in 70 hours of work a week with ease. This same person also chooses to work an additional 20 hours a week to avoid four hours of management tasks: speaking with candor, giving and soliciting feedback, and directing their employees. This breakdown of leadership hurts them, their company, and puts a ceiling on potential for everyone involved.
Why are they choosing this? Because working long hours and being challenged in their area of expertise are comfortably uncomfortable for them. Doing leadership work, work that lives in relationship and hierarchy, is uncomfortable discomfort.
Another example is a stellar product or business development person who has the skills, idea, and runway to start their own company, but continuously puts it off. Uncertainty (financial or otherwise) and loneliness are areas of uncomfortable discomfort for them. That same person may be considering a promotion to lead a team, yet avoid it for the vulnerability and exposure to uncertainty that come with leadership.
You might be thinking to yourself, “but Justin, what if I’m plateaued and I don’t even know why? I wouldn’t be avoiding anything then.” Maybe, but also no.
First, how often does that really happen?
Second, if it did, why aren’t you asking others for feedback or help in identifying it?
You’re actually struggling with one of the more common areas of uncomfortable discomfort: asking for help. Surrendering to the reality that you don’t know and seeking out someone who does.
Areas of uncomfortable discomfort are areas where you feel vulnerable. Exposed. There’s a story about how if things go wrong there, something existential will happen. These stories are rarely rooted in reality, but come to dominate your psychology and therefore your behavior.
They’re also hard to identify. Many top performers have the story that they’re very comfortable with discomfort. And that’s true, for certain kinds of discomfort. It takes a self-aware person to realize that they’re comfortable with extreme levels of discomfort of Type A & B, but if you give them Type C & D, they are out and in avoidance like the best procrastinators in the world.
Where are your areas of uncomfortable discomfort? Can you find the areas that push your buttons so hard that you consistently avoid them, compromising your growth?
What’s the core story that’s driving that discomfort? Can you reframe that story in a way that’s more empowering?
Can you see who you get to become and what becomes possible if you step into the fire of that discomfort?
How will you get started?