The Right Kind of Discomfort

Ask a motivational guru peddling discomfort as the solution to everything, and he’ll tell you that, every morning, you should jump into an electrified pool full of sharks, punch six of them in the nose before eating the seventh one for breakfast, and then proceed to cold-email 200 venture capitalists asking them for $10 million each. Rejection, baby! It’s what makes the world go round!

No. Stop. Struggling is not the only way you can grow, and, actually, the comfort zone is where work gets done. Most of the time, discomfort must be carefully calibrated in order to yield its best-possible effect. Like too much Nutella on a piece of toast — and yes, there is such a thing — more hardship does not automatically lead to more improvement.

For the first nine months of 2023, working on Four Minute Books was comfortable. I was putting in serious hours, but I knew exactly what I was doing: publishing more pieces to get more traffic to the website. That’s it. That was the plan. Every month, I checked off box after box on Trello, releasing new writing, and tracking my stats as I went. Did the work still take a lot of effort? Was it boring sometimes? Was it challenging to write the best piece I could possibly write each time, and do so in a creative way? Of course, of course, of course! But it was the right kind of discomfort.

Then, in October, Google updated its magic formula, and my traffic went down the tube. Now, I’m stuck throwing darts in the dark, trying to guess and fix what’s wrong, all while thinking of and pursuing alternative solutions. This, too, is discomfort, but it’s the sort of discomfort I could very much have done without. When you’re thrown into a sink-or-swim situation, you’re by definition struggling to stay afloat. How could that possibly be your best performance?

Sometimes, a severe challenge will indeed bring out new sides of you and turn you into a stronger person — but it’s far from the only way to become a stronger person and rarely the path to achieving your dreams. That path is usually a long, winding one, and while venturing to a remote land is what might initially point you to it, once you’re on that path, what you must do is keep your feet moving and your eyes glued to the target.

My new situation forces me to look at my website from new angles. It makes me ask questions like, “Can I generate traffic from other sources? Can I better monetize what I already have?” It’s not without benefits, of course, but there’s no clear path to success. No guaranteed result, waiting to be collected as the reward for hard, focused work over a long period of time. The environment is murky, and the odds of getting everything back on track? Who’s to say?

Previously, I had identified a reliable connection: More posts, more traffic, more money. I had a certain traffic goal in mind, and the kind of discomfort I would have to endure to get there was clear. Given the choice, I’ll take the latter over the former any day. As long as you care about the goal, transparent discomfort is much easier to work with than nontransparent discomfort. You want to see the dip you’re descending into, not just step off a cliff and hope you don’t fall.

It’s true that discomfort is an essential component of both happiness and success, but it’s a more complex ingredient than we usually make it out to be. Dose your discomfort properly, and make sure you choose the right kind whenever you can. There are no prizes for punching sharks, but if you keep swimming in the right direction, perhaps one day you’ll find the magical island you seek.