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Steep-climbs-are-uncomftable-tooAs I sit here writing–and trying not to scratch at the terribly itchy sunburn on my calves–I’m thinking a lot about discomfort. People go to such great lengths to avoid it.

And yet, it’s a tremendously important part of life.

OK, maybe not all forms of being uncomfortable are important. Certainly not sunburn. Sunburn is not a requirement.

Let’s back up and begin at the beginning.

A painful reminder of a fantastic experience

I recently climbed Mt Adams with a group of friends. It was a-maz-ing. My climbing friends were, as always, great group to hang out with.

Mt-Rainier-from-Mt-AdamsThe view from the top was incredible: Ridiculously blue sky, bright white snow all around the expansive peak. Mt. Hood sat due South, with Mt. Jefferson peaking around its East flank. Mt. St. Helens squatted to the West, and the view of it gaping maw of a crater from 4000 feet higher put a better perspective on what that eruption must have been like, back in 1980. And to the North… Oh the view to the North! Mt Rainier in its 14,000+ foot glory obliterated most of the horizon. The wide angle lens on my camera phone doesn’t do it justice.

All in all, I had one of the best climbing experiences of my life.

Also, I slogged a 45-pound pack up thousands of feet over many miles, slept in a tent on rocky ground without a comfortable pillow, dealt with blisters from rental mountaineering boots, and ran out of water when the stream at the campsite ran dry. Oh, and I climbed to the peak on the second day with the worst sunburn I’ve ever had, on my legs. Did I mention how bad the the sunburn was?

And even after all of that, when I look back on the trip, I remember a fantastic experience. An even better trip than my recent climb up Mt. St. Helens.

Pro tip 1: When the weather turns warmer than expected, it’s great to have a pair of zip-off hiking pants.

Pro tip 2: When converting zip-off hiking pants into shorts, its well worth the extra time that it takes to apply sunscreen to your suddenly exposed skin. Especially at elevation. And especially when hiking over snow.


The three types of fun

Home-sweet-home-at-lunch-counterWe climbers like to talk about the three types of fun. I don’t often see references to this concept outside of climbing, but it’s certainly not limited to the activity. Here’s a quick summary:

Type I fun is fun in the moment. Playing games, eating chocolate, having sex. These are all clearly fun activities. And when you stop doing them, you stop feeling the fun. There is little or no lasting effect.

Type II fun is the kind that sticks with you. And, it requires some level discomfort. It comes from doing the kind of thing that doesn’t seem enjoyable in the moment, but that leaves you looking back and smiling. A lot of mountaineering is Type II fun.

Type III fun is the “what was I thinking!” kind of thing that never turns out to be fun at all. We try to avoid type III fun.

If you want to increase your overall happiness in life, you’ve got to seek out that type II fun situations. The uncomfortable ones. Those are the ones that stick with you.

Growth means discomfort.

And this isn’t all about having fun. Raising your baseline level of happiness is only half of the benefit of getting comfortable with discomfort. The other half is personal development–what it takes to grow into your full potential.

Just like there are three types of fun, there are three types of self-improvement.

Type I is information gathering and planning. It’s reading about ways to improve your life. It’s listening to a motivational speaker and feeling good about yourself. It’s writing out a list of lofty goals.
Type I self-improvement feels good, but it doesn’t actually get you very far. Most people never make it past Type I activities. They’ll pay thousands of dollars to go to a Tony Robbins event. They might even come away from that event with a vaguely lasting sense of “betterness.” And then what happens next? They settle back into the same lifestyle that they had before.

Type II is taking action. It’s defining your edges, and pushing them ever outward. It’s trying something new, even without any kind of proof that the new thing will work. Just like type II fun, it feels uncomfortable in the moment. In fact, in most cases, it has to feel uncomfortable. I’ll get to that in a moment,

Type III is commonly referred to as “post-traumatic growth.” It’s the positive effects than can come out of a personal crisis. We’ll cover more about post-traumatic growth in a different blog post. For now, let’s agree that we don’t want to intentionally engineer truly traumatic situations, right?

Just like with fun, then, the best way to create lasting improvements is to actively pursue type II. And that kind if growth? It is, by definition, uncomfortable. That’s unavoidable; if you avoid the discomfort, you avoid the growth. Here’s why:

The science behind discomfort

All of the cells in your body, including the cells in your brain, are constantly awash in a unique blend of hormones and other neurochemicals. Chemicals like cortisol, dopamine, seratonin, and endorphins. (Want the full scientific detail? Check out the Nobel Prize winning work by Lefkowitz and Kobilka)

And here’s the thing: Your cells get used to what they’re used to.

So what happens when the conditions change?

That biochemical “tuning” is critically important. It means that when the cells don’t get the hormone mix that they are “tuned” to, they are inefficient. And an inefficient cell is an “uncomfortable” cell. It sends a message up to your brain, saying:

“Hey, this isn’t right! This isn’t what I’m used to!”

When you hear that message at such a base cellular level from our body, you take it seriously. Even though in your head you know that this change is what you want, your body doesn’t understand this.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

If you don’t recognize your body’s reaction for what it is, it’s easy misread it as a sign that you are doing something wrong, or something that won’t work for you.

Think about it. Meditation is finally picking up some popular support, and it’s been proven to have a lot of benefits. And yet, how many people do you know who would say “I tried it once. It’s not for me.”

The same goes for yoga. Or for making a financial lifestyle change. Or even for moving to a different climate.

If we can stick with it, that moment of greatest discomfort comes right before the realignment–right before our bodies adapt to the new way, the positive change that we’re making.

If we don’t stick with it, if we quit, our cells say “Ha!, I knew it! That condition wasn’t right, and now things are ‘normal’ again.”

It reinforces that “normal” behavior.

Too bad it’s that “normal” that you’re trying to change.

Trying a new morning routine? How about training yourself to use more empowering language? No matter what your goal, if it involves a significant change from what you’ve been doing, prepare for discomfort.

Today’s comfort is tomorrow’s dissatisfaction. Discomfort is a necessary part of growth.

– Tweet this!

You have to stick through the uncomfortable transition to create any kind of “sticking” change.

You’ve got to break through the resistance.

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