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Engaging in Productive Discomfort

By: Jane Wurwand
Posted: August 21, 2008, from the September 2008 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
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Competence is what gets us through the day when we’re simply functioning on autopilot. We all have those occasional days when we wish we could phone it in because we can’t find it within ourselves be 200% present as we double-cleanse, exfoliate, treat, mask, massage and so on. Ever arrive at your job in the morning and not really remember how you got there? Have no idea what exit you take off the freeway when someone calls the front desk asking for directions? This is the function of competence, created through memory and repetition. It carries us through when we feel brain-dead, and once in a while it is a lifesaver.

So is comfortable competence really such a bad thing? If you’re striving for greatness, the answer is yes. We have to push ourselves in order to find our greatness. We like to do things the way we’ve always done them because doing so makes us feel competent, and we make fewer mistakes this way. However, the trouble with the competent route is that, metaphorically speaking, it makes us flabby.

If you’re not feeling incompetent at least some of the time, then you’re probably stuck in a rut and aren’t trying hard enough. I’m in favor of risking looking incompetent if you’re doing so on the journey to something great. This experience is what I call productive discomfort. Productive discomfort can be exhilarating, and to break through to entrepreneurial greatness, you must learn to actually enjoy the pounding of your heart that accompanies pure terror. And honestly, a little fear won’t kill you.

In fact, taking risks is one of the things that allows us to innovate, according to scientists. A recent article in the New York Times titled “Unboxed: Can You Become A Creature of New Habits?” by Janet Rae-Dupree states, “brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.”

Shifting to stretch

M.J. Ryan and Dawna Markova are authors, executive change consultants and business partners in a company called Professional Thinking Partners. Their job: to get professionals to step outside their habitual comfort zones and think more innovatively. Ryan and Markova have identified three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Too much comfort and we never get off the couch, but too much stress and we’re living in a nightmare equivalent to a Stephen King novel. The place of real magic is that middle zone they call stretch, where things are awkward and unfamiliar, but we still maintain enough competence to function. This is where we locate our potential, and specifically, our greatness.