Next, we come to the practice of discomfort and all that it entails. By definition, anything that requires exercising self-discipline is uncomfortable. We’d rather not do it, otherwise it would be known as fun. This puts us in a quandary; sometimes there is nothing else we can do but suck it up and push forward, despite all the tactics and mindsets we’ve discussed in this book. At some point, we will have to be uncomfortable, and sometimes life is just a matter of how much discomfort you can stomach. Thus, we must practice it, and we will eventually grow immune to an extent. Practicing discomfort is like a vaccine against your impulses and weak moments. When you can slowly gain perspective that discomfort is not so bad and ultimately temporary, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.
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Ultimately, what we may be looking for when we think about self-discipline is hardening ourselves and gaining the ability to simply push through tasks more often than not.
The brain can be tricked, mindsets can be shifted, and we can manipulate our surroundings all we want. At the core, we still need to engage in something we find at least slightly annoying or uncomfortable. Evidence is everywhere. For instance…
“Lose weight without the diet and exercise!”
“Think positively and you’ll get whatever you want, without effort!”
“Follow this plan and you’ll only have to work four hours in a week!”
In our modern consumer world, where marketing and advertising compete for our attention and our money at every turn, the name of the game is offering something for nothing. Abs without crunches. Money in the bank without breaking a sweat. Knowledge without studying too hard.
Products like this are successful because they tap into humankind’s collective desire to avoid discomfort at all costs. We all have the dream of living in a world where we get everything we want without trying too hard or being scared or making any sacrifice. Otherwise, what’s the lottery for?
However, as we’ve seen, a massive part of success in life comes down to self-discipline, and self-discipline is at its core made of nothing but the willingness to endure discomfort. In other words, there are no shortcuts, no easy life hacks, no quick tricks. Success in the bigger picture belongs to those who have mastered the ability to tolerate a degree of distress and uncertainty and who can thrive in situations of sacrifice in service of something bigger than their immediate pleasure in the moment.
Self-discipline = being uncomfortable. No tips or tactics needed.
We all want to grow and achieve, but the truth is that the state of growth is inherently an uncomfortable one. Evolving feels uncertain and risky at times, and it certainly requires us to give up immediate pleasures and old, easy habits. Growth and development is about expanding, risking, exploring. It cannot be done without leaving the security of the old behind. And sometimes, change requires pain, as the old dies and the new is still small and uncertain.
Self-discipline is not required for the easy parts of life. It takes no effort or special technique to enjoy what we already enjoy. But if we want to productively approach the rest of life, we need to develop the self-discipline to work with the things we don’t enjoy. Rather than thinking of pain, discomfort, and uncertainty as roadblocks in our way to pleasure and success, we understand that they’re simply a part of life, and if we manage them well, we can unlock even bigger pleasures.
There is a great paradox in learning to not just tolerate but embrace discomfort. Practicing being uncomfortable doesn’t sound like much fun, and it isn’t. But it is a skill that will reap far more rewards in the long term than merely chasing fleeting pleasures or shifting fancies in each moment.
Simply, we practice self-discipline and familiarity with discomfort because we respect that life contains an inevitable amount of discomfort. We know that in gaining a new perspective on the things we don’t really want to do, we actually create new opportunities for fulfillment, meaning, and pleasure. Life becomes easier, and we become stronger, almost larger than the everyday trials and troubles life can throw our way.
With self-discipline, our expectations become healthier and more in line with reality. Our work becomes more focused and purposeful and we are able to achieve more. Self-discipline is not a thing we simply decide we want or think is a good idea in theory. It’s a practice that we pitch up for again and again, every day and every moment, willing to work it out in the arena of our lived experience. In other words, self-discipline is a habit in a world where the easiest thing is to take the path of least resistance or fall prey to the “succeed without trying” traps all around us.
It might seem logical at first to pursue pleasure. But if there’s one thing we know with utmost certainty, it’s that things will change around us, we will have to endure suffering at one point or another, and we will be uncomfortable and forced to face things we wish we didn’t have to. If we have this knowledge, isn’t it better to be prepared rather than blindly pursue a dazzling goal with no thought to what you’ll do when that goal doesn’t go how you planned?
Learning how to tolerate distress, uncertainty, doubt, and risk while things are okay (i.e., before these things are forced on you by life) gives you the opportunity to practice and develop your discipline so you’re prepared for future discomfort. Yes, it means that walking barefoot makes you more “immune” to one day having to walk without shoes. But it also means you’re less attached to needing shoes, and you feel deep down that you are more than able to respond to and endure challenges. This is an attitude of empowerment. It’s looking at life’s challenges head-on and deciding to accept them and respond with dignity and grit.
Practicing tolerance is a “vaccine” in that you inoculate yourself against future discomfort in general. Adversity will still bother you, but you’ll move through it with the quiet confidence that it won’t kill you. How can it, when you’ve endured it all before and only came out stronger?
You can turn your focus to maximizing pleasure and refusing to engage with pain; or you can acknowledge that life intends to serve you heaping doses of both, and if you can prepare with maturity and wisdom, you can stay calm and ride those waves, trusting that you’ve developed your ability to survive.
So prepare while the going is still easy. Don’t wait for life to force you to learn the lessons you must, sooner or later. Take the initiative by developing self-discipline right now. The shift is only a small one, but mentally it has great influence on how you approach yourself and life. The idea is straightforward: get more uncomfortable than you’d usually be. Give yourself the gift of the opportunity to grow stronger.
Importantly, you’re not just thinking about these things or talking about them. It’s not enough to “get” the concept intellectually or abstractly. One must actually have a real lived experience of discomfort. You need to get your hands dirty out there in the trenches of real life.
Show notes and/or episode transcripts are available at https://bit.ly/self-growth-home
Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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