Innovators:  Are You Comfortable with being Uncomfortable? Are Your Kids?

By Shlomo Maital


            Comfort:   “a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint”.    

            The purpose of much of modern life seems to be to annihilate all sources of discomfort from our lives.   Pain?  Pop a pill.  Hungry? Thirsty?  You’re never more than 5 minutes away from fast food that gives you bulges in ugly places.  Frustrated?  Well, if you can’t leap over the bar,  hey,  just set it lower. 

             The problem with this is,   things that truly create immense value for human beings happen, only when creative people become uncomfortable with the current state of affairs – with what exists.  Without this divine dissatisfaction, and discomfort, we would have no progress at all.  If everyone was satisfied with everything as it is…?   If everyone shunned prolonged discomfort?  Nothing would change.  And heaven knows, there is a lot that MUST change.   When Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, launched the company in 1999, he told the team of 17 that he assembled, that the next 3-5 years would involve a great deal of pain.  And it did, beginning with the NASDAQ crash of March 2000.  But led by Ma, his team was comfortable with being uncomfortable, because there was a reason,  rationale, vision and goal.   

             I think this issue begins with raising our kids.  As parents, we want the best for them.  We want them perhaps to avoid the hardships we ourselves experienced.  We smooth their paths.  We make them comfortable, as much as we can.  And our schools do the same,  avoiding the tension and frustration that occurs when kids are challenged to do better, far better, in math and reading.  We want our children to avoid failure.  But failure is part of life.  Resilience after failure is one of the most important skills one can have.  How can you acquire it, and strengthen it, if you never are in a situation where resilience is needed?

             The Jewish Talmud requires every parent to teach their children to swim.  It’s common sense – what if they fell into a river or lake?    By the same logic we also must prepare our kids for life’s challenges.  Meeting those challenges may involve prolonged discomfort.  If you cannot face any discomfort, how can you achieve greatness, for yourself and for others?  How will you ever invest the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell says is the difference between mediocrity and greatness, in anything?   If you only do things that you know will be comfortable, successful, you will miss many many wonderful opportunities for adventure and innovation. 

           I recall jogging with each of our children.  They didn’t always love it.  But our boys have all done marathons (I’ve done two, NY and Boston),   and all have taken on, and surmounted, major physical challenges that led to important achievements.   I think that running with them when they were young may have helped. 

        So my message is:  Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Help your kids do the same.  New and strange things by definition are uncomfortable, in general.   If you welcome the risk, the uncertainty, the angst, that comes with trying the unfamiliar, the challenging,  the unknown,  even the frustrating,   if you welcome discomfort, soon you become comfortable with it.  And then, you can go on to invent great things and change the world.