What Discomfort Means to Your Success

Consider the anatomy of an oyster. On the inside of its iridescent shell, there’s the mantle, a protective layer that shelters the oyster’s vital organs. When an intruder slips between shell and mantle—a frequent occurrence in the ocean’s unruly ebb and flow–the oyster oozes a substance called nacre, which cloaks the errant particle and forces the oyster and irritant to coexist. Layer by layer and little by little, something beautiful happens: the oyster continues to envelop the discomfort until a jewel appears.

Sometimes, the process takes six months. Sometimes it takes six years. The mollusks that excel at gently alchemizing their unease into art repeat the process until they have dozens of pearls where they once had perils.

Pearls Aren't Made Despite Comfort. They're Created Because of It. Quote by Barbara Waxman

For the last two years, we’ve been under a two-pronged attack. Irritants from the outside world have been slipping under our shells everyday—the pandemic, social upheaval, economic shifts, divisiveness, etc. And then there are the attacks on our inner worlds, those grains of sand in the soul—our loneliness, anxieties, existential ruminations and fears.

Many of us, understandably, are quick to shy away from these irritants. But, friends, I’m here to tell you that discomfort can be illuminating. Leaning into those vulnerable, uncomfortable feelings helps us stay motivated and progressing toward our highly personal definitions of success.

Like oysters, fulfilled humans have figured out that discomfort is necessary for joy to grow. They have figured out how to lean into and leverage discomfort. They have, in a sense, turned discomfort into a conduit for a happier life. 

Many of us are waltzing with renewed vigor to reclaim some of the opportunities that we lost in the pandemic. But often, the audacious goals transform into a series of starts and stops—unruly currents that can propel or drown us, depending on how we take advantage of them. 90% choose to sink, and 10% choose to see the discomfort of making a change as an opportunity to produce pearls

Often what differentiates the progress made between the write-offs from the pearl producers is perception.

Like oysters, fulfilled humans have figured out that discomfort is necessary for joy to grow. They have figured out how to lean into and leverage discomfort. They have, in a sense, turned discomfort into a conduit for a happier life. 

Know Why Your Progress Hits Roadblocks

Whether it’s a warm cup of coffee, the embrace of a loved one, or assigning ourselves to tasks we know we will excel at—we all seek comfort. It’s one of life’s greatest joys, but too much can lead to status quo and ennui. Could one of the following challenges be standing between you and your ideal year?  

You Lost Sight of What Success Means to You—or Perhaps You Never Clarified It

A rapidly growing number of people have a dirty little secret: they might look successful on the outside but don’t feel that way on the inside. It’s easy to fall prey to the ubiquitous cultural messages and multi-billion-dollar advertising industry that tells us “success” looks like having more money, mega social media “likes,” and the perfect family. That’s where far too many of us, without even being aware of it, go so wrong. The first step towards creating your definition of success begins with sitting at the feet of your life and learning from it.

It's Time to Master the Art of Being Uneasy to Cultivate Pearls of Wisdom and Success - Barbara Waxman

You Let Your Gremlins Hold You Back 

It seems like the further we stray from the stressors that our ancestors faced daily, the more depressed, anxious, and petty we become. Research is telling us that it’s time to re-wild ourselves. But to do so, we need to know when to beware and when to befriend our anxieties, fears, and Gremlins. Your Gremlins are harbingers of missed opportunity, hyper-vigilant naysayers whispering in your ear. Sometimes, Gremlins are helpful; a well-timed whisper can protect you from danger, embarrassment, etc. However, being Gremlins, they don’t understand that taking a risk is often necessary to push through to your goal. By paying attention to your Gremlin, you can quiet that voice enough to move past its objections to the real (but worth it) risks associated with making that big move, doing something you grew up being told was out of your range, or saying no and taking the hit for it.  

Your Perception of Your Future and Your Place in it Works Against You

One of my favorite bumper stickers proclaims: “Don’t believe everything you think.” Your perception acts as a gatekeeper, deciding whether you bring your wisdom to the forefront or allow fear and negativity to run the show. For example, I have a friend who has worked a job he hates for years. He wanted to leave but had all kinds of reasons why it would be too risky, and the timing wasn’t right. Then, a few weeks ago, the company was sold, his division was consolidated, and he was given severance. His reaction? How unfair! My reaction? What a gift—he hated that job! Perception makes the difference. 

How to Cultivate Pearls in 2023

Instead of the usual goals and resolutions, ask yourself how discomfort, that pebble in your shoe, can help you. Here are five commandments for seeking more from your life, discomforts and all: 

Less Is More

We live in a culture of more, more, more. But too much mental and material clutter adds to our stress. For every activity or possession, you take on, identify what you need to do to free up space. Simplify your possessions, activities, and relationships. Here’s a rule of thumb—if it energizes you, keep it. If it depletes you, consider disengaging or releasing it. Marie Kondo your mind, your home, your office, your calendar. 

A recent study from UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families (CELF) found that clutter profoundly affects our mood and self-esteem. 

Source: https://www.houselogic.com/organize-maintain/cleaning-decluttering/clutter-depression/

Live According to Your Stage, Not Age

Over the past century, we have added about three decades to life expectancy, making the period between 45 and 70 one of great potential and growth. We are healthier than any other generation before, and if we understand how to cultivate our vital health and energy, anything is possible. But it’s critical to do one thing to live the promise of these added years: release the chronological number you have always associated with aging. Your age no longer defines you. We have more years of living, not dying. Live according to your stage of life and embrace the challenges and changes to thrive.

Age is a gift. A study followed thousands of Americans from ages 41 to 50 and discovered they became less neurotic and self-conscious as they aged. 

Source: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/107319110000700405

Beware and Befriend Your Gremlins

As discussed above, Gremlins, like stress, can serve a positive function, keeping us safe from danger, embarrassment, risky situations, and more. But, being Gremlins, they don’t know when it’s important for you to take a risk to advance your career, family life, or internal growth. Gremlins repeat old negative messages you may have heard growing up—messages that no longer serve you. Simply said, half the time you hear your Gremlins, you probably need to shut them down. 

Positive self-talk reduces stress and can improve your health. 

Source: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950

Define Success on Your Own Terms

Covid has forced us to reframe how we view success, which, I believe, is causing a painful, important and consequential reckoning. My hope is that all the suffering and loss over the last two-plus years will result in a new and healthier consciousness about what we value and why we work. I’m sensing a shift in my clients and the broader world that the very nature of ambition is evolving. Embrace it.

"You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die. Or when. You can decide how you’re going to live. Now." —Joan Baez

Step Up to Serve Others

What you put forth into the world will come back to you. Studies continue to show that when you give, you reap far greater rewards. So give your time, share your talents, and offer some of your treasure as circumstances allow. Imagine all the good that could come from those billions of volunteer and pro bono hours. We could have thousands of thriving schools and nonprofits, millions of disadvantaged students on the path to higher education, billions of trees planted…the possibilities are endless. Ask yourself: where might your talents and interests best intersect with community needs in a way that would be meaningful?

Studies show what we all know. When we give we reap far greater rewards. Contributions need not only be financial. Give of your time, share your talents, and yes, as circumstances allow, offer some of your treasure as well. 

Source: https://www.matherinstitute.com/2013/10/17/giving-to-others-reduces-impact-of-stress-eliminating-the-association-of-stressful-events-with-mortality/

Are You Ready to Make Discomfort a Part of Your Master Plan? 

Friends, I want to encourage you to make this the year that you stepped out of your comfort zone and said yes with conviction and no with clarity. Listen to your Gremlins and shut them down when they don’t serve you; turn your unease into art, and platform  the voices of those on the periphery who are reinventing political action and finding successes that were impossible not so long ago.

To achieve both internal peace and a more equitable world—discomfort will not only be a sign of progress: it will be a precondition for it. 

Five to Thrive Quiz

Resilient people rebound from discomfort with grace, stronger and more whole than before. Taking a post-2022 assessment of your personal energy resilience will help you create a micro-ambitious activation plan toward a more fulfilling 2023.

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