Turn Toward Discomfort, Turn Toward Leadership

Imagine you’re a personal trainer: you help people get in shape. A new client calls you and tells you their problems: they’re tired a lot, their clothes don’t fit, and they don’t feel comfortable going to the beach because of how they look.

You tell them you can help, and schedule the first session. The day comes. You get them warmed up and give them heavy things to lift. They stop as quickly as they begin.

“This is hard. It hurts. I’m hot and out of breath,” they complain.

“Yes, you’re exercising! That’s how you know it’s working,” you respond.

“But I want to feel better, and this is making me feel worse.”

“Not now, no, but you’ll feel better later.”

“But I want to feel good now!”

Seem silly? I know, but we do this in a realm outside of exercise all the time. Keep reading to learn how you do this, especially if you’re in leadership. And I’m going to offer you a set of life-changing leadership tools for a dollar.

Do you remember “No pain, no gain” from the 80s? The explosion of the health club industry happened in part because of a widespread realization: the idea that, on the physical level, a short-term discomfort earns you a long-term benefit. Something that before only athletes knew became popular culture. Remarkable.

This principle applies to the mental realm as well. Perhaps you remember the moment when you figured out studying: that the uncomfortable brain-squinting attempt to recall information strengthens your grasp of the knowledge. It happens every time you look at a flash card. You learned terms like “brain strain” and about the need to take study breaks every hour or so. You knew it was good for you, and you saw the results.

In the physical and mental realm, we understand “No pain, no gain” even if we don’t always embody it, but there’s a third domain where we don’t understand this very well: the emotional one.

In physical exercise, sometimes it’s difficult to tell if you’re experiencing good pain or bad pain. You could say the root problem of your client above is they have an instant gratification issue, and that’s true. But more specifically, it’s the inability to discern between good pain and bad pain. Because if you experienced the pain as productive, you’d turn toward it, not away.

How often, when you’re experiencing emotional pain, do you have an awareness that it’s good for you, as in exercise?

Most people have such a quick, negative reaction to emotional discomfort that we stop the “exercise” unconsciously, without even realizing it. Here’s an example of a conversation I have with someone in leadership every week. The client says something like:

“I don’t have enough time.”

“Let’s see if I can help. How many times a day do you check your email?”

“Oh, I’m in and out of email all day. I have to be for our clients.”

“I see. What’s the minimum number of times you could check it and still serve them?”

“I just have to be available to respond to them as soon as possible.”

“Yes, I get that, so if you checked your email every two hours, would that be enough?”

“I think I spend too much time in meetings.”

What’s happening here, in between the lines, is that the client is emotionally uncomfortable with the idea of changing their email habits. That’s not a problem. The problem is that they are unconscious of, and not taking responsibility for that discomfort. It causes the client to steer away from the issue and avoid answering any of the questions directly. Here’s what turning toward emotional discomfort would look like:

“I don’t have enough time.”

“Let’s see if I can help. How many times a day do you check your email?”

“Oh, I’m in and out of email all day. I have to be for our clients.”

“I see. What’s the minimum number of times you could check it and still serve them?”

“Boy, it’s really uncomfortable to even think about checking it less. That’s interesting. I feel like I might miss something. It wouldn’t be easy for me, but if I checked email twice a day, that’d be enough.”

“Great tracking! And what do you think would happen if you switched to that schedule?”

“Well, I can see I’d have a lot more time, but I’d have to get through the anxiety of wondering what I might be missing.”

“That’s true, and with practice, you’ll see that you can. Checking email too often is one of the biggest time wasters there is, and it’s not easy to make the change, but that’s discomfort worth enduring.”

“I see what you mean. I’ll start tomorrow.”

People bring me business problems every day, and nine times out of ten the issue is not the lack of knowledge or tool or information they think it is. The difference between the two conversations above is self-awareness. Last week I talked about how systems are not the solution, and how so many people radically misunderstood the EMyth philosophy. Here’s my favorite quote from Michael Gerber’s best-seller, The E-Myth Revisited, from the forward.

“The problem with most failing businesses I’ve encountered is not that their owners don’t know enough about finance, marketing, management, and operations – they don’t, but those things are easy enough to learn but that they spend their time and energy defending what they think they know.”

He’s saying it’s not a knowledge issue, it’s an awareness one. So why do so many people frame their issues as a lack of knowledge? Because the alternative is emotional discomfort they avoid like the plague, sometimes their whole lives, while they search for comfortable, impotent solutions (like systems and knowledge).

Every persistent unsolved problem in the world stems from this issue. As a species, we act like we’re missing some secret knowledge when what we’re missing is emotional courage.

The skill of turning toward productive, emotional discomfort is helpful for anyone. In leadership, it’s required. Want your people to stretch, grow, and take on more responsibility? If they can’t turn toward emotional pain, it won’t happen. If you don’t embody this yourself, you won’t even see the issue in them, much less be able to help them with it.

And if you avoid emotional discomfort in yourself, you won’t steer your people into it via accountability, which is one of the most common root problems in all businesses today.

So where do you start?

It may seem unrelated, but the place to begin is getting organized. I call my online organization course Clear Workspace, Open Mind because getting organized clears your head. This is the basic ground of self-awareness and leadership. You can’t be busy. You have to have a clear head to be able to notice and correct where you unconsciously avoid emotional discomfort. Overwhelm and excessive busyness are powerful ways to avoid noticing your feelings. That’s why they’re so popular. They sabotage leadership.

So now: what are you going to do about it?

As an expression of my commitment to your growth, for the next three days, you can get started as a Clear and Open Member for one dollar. If at the end of thirty days, you find it’s not for you, then you only spend a dollar. Or you can go on at the regular rate and cancel anytime. You get access to all of the online courses as well as a community of people committed to personal growth in a professional realm. Sign up right now and use the coupon code: onedollar

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