“On the values of embracing discomfort”

When I was preparing for the Ocean Row, I really was thinking on how to get best prepared, and that included being prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally. That entailed a lot of parameters. So many it is overwhelming. Where do I start? Who do I ask? What questions do I even have to ask?

I knew I had to be ok being tired, being salty wet, being hungry, being hurt, being in a confined environment, being exhausted, being frustrated, being injured maybe, being helpless, being…. All these are not comfortable, I think you would agree. They have physical, mental and emotional triggers. To get prepared for the row, I had to find a way to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Getting comfortable with discomfort was vital to the success of this expedition. To get there, I had to ask myself many question: What does it mean to be uncomfortable? What does it mean to be comfortable? Why are we as humans searching for comfort? What do we consider comfortable, and is it good or is it bad?

I believe there are good things in being comfortable. But I also believe there are good things in being uncomfortable. I think our perception of both feelings has a lot must do with our immediate environment, our own perspective on things and how we can trick our mind as we try to classify on things being one or the other.

For instance, when you work on something you are passionate about, it doesn’t feel like work, right? What some people could consider uncomfortable, you don’t see it as such, for some reason. At the same time, it still takes you effort, and patience, and determination, and drive. It’s not easy so I guess it must be uncomfortable in some ways. But it is still comfortable in other ways because your mind knows why you do it. So, I guess that’s it, it’s all a question of what happens in our mind when we do something, and if it makes sense for us or not, according to our own parameters and judgment. Making the uncomfortable comfortable…

Let’s not think about a crazy endeavor for a moment, let’s just take a random daily activity: vacuuming the house. You could approach it in a few diverse ways: 1. Do it with a negative energy: You do not want to do it and it’s a hassle. You’re dragging your feet to do it. (that was me when I had to do my chores as a kid…) 2. Do it with a neutral energy: you do it because it has to be done. It doesn’t bring nor pain nor pleasure. 3. Do it with a positive energy: It’s still not pleasurable, but your trick your mind in such a way that the experience becomes positive. For instance, you focus your thoughts on how you will feel when you’ll be done. Or how someone you love will feel once the house is clean. You can see that, for both 1. and 2., you will gain the comfort of having a clean house, but you will struggle for it. For 3., you will gain comfort, but you will like the process. Making the uncomfortable comfortable…

But then I started to think that instead of just trying to make the uncomfortable comfortable, I just had to start embracing discomfort as a whole.

When I am competing in a canoe race. It is long, it is hard, I push myself and I push the team, I breathe hard and I pant, I clinch my teeth and I grind, I push and I push, I resist and I struggle, I thrive and I go, I push but I fail, I come back and I breathe through it, I push and do it, I cheer and I hope, I push and I push. And I finally make it. Happy. It was not comfortable in some ways. It was effort. But it was pleasurable. And the result is pleasurable because I surpassed my pains and my discomforts so I feel good about myself. And it was pleasurable because I shared the experience with a team and we felt united in the effort. And I’ll do it again because the overall reward is awesome. Embracing discomfort…

Let’s take another look at the power of mental perspective. When you are running in the sun, it is comfortable because the sun rays are warm. We think it is positive energy and it’s easy to do. When you are running in the rain and it’s cold outside, it is uncomfortable because the signals in our body tells us it is. But I have found that I actually feel more energized after a run in the cold rather than in the hot. Cold temperatures trigger something in my cells that feels so good. Once I’m back home after that cold rainy run, I feel so pumped. Kinda like when you swim in that cold ocean. Don’t you feel like superman when you walk toward your towel?  I guess it’s a question of perspective, and how one is able to trick his own mind. What if we consider hot and cold as energy rather than comfort and discomfort. Hot is energy. Cold is energy. When I run in the hot I feel energized. When I run in the cold I will feel energized. Maybe not at the beginning for sure, but we have to be strong in our mind to know that the end result is what matters. We have to sacrifice the harshness of the moment for the result. Do something we don’t want to do to feel like we want to feel, or go where we want to go. Embracing discomfort…

The problem is that we get used to comfort. And there are many types of comfort. It depends on our standards, wherever we are in life: in our personal history, in our education, in our culture…. In poor countries, washing yourself from a bucket of clear water is much better than a cold bath in a muddy river, so that’s comfort to them. For me, a warm shower with potable water is a standard and I sometime forget that it is a comfort. I feel so thankful to be reminded of this. When I did my trip around the world, I could see that my standards growing up in France were not shared with 80% of the world’s population. I felt thankful for that and it made me appreciate how lucky I was. When I did my ocean row and didn’t shower for 40 days, I felt thankful for the hot shower I took back on land, which I had taken for granted before. I like to put myself in hard conditions, just as a reminder that I have to be thankful for what I have. And how lucky I am. Embracing discomfort…

It’s in the nature of the human being to be constantly looking for comfort. I guess it is in our roots and back in the early ages of mankind, it was more comfortable to live in a safe cave, away from rough climate and danger, rather than in the wild outside where life is miserable and a lion could eat you up.  Searching for comfort is good, but until what point? Here is what I believe: I think that too much comfort will lead to weakness and to laziness. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to feel weak and lazy, I like to feel strong. And to be strong you have to embrace discomfort. That’s probably why the army creates toughness in soldiers by training them to be accustomed and even embrace discomfort. Training hard to be hard. Personally, I really feel the “need” to embrace discomfort every once in a while, to oblige myself to do things “I don’t feel like doing”, in order to wake myself up from the lethargic state that life in my comfort zone could put me in. Nothing better that signing up for a race or a challenge that I feel I can’t do, and that will make it mandatory for me to bring up my game. Embracing discomfort…

Now how far should this idea of embracing discomfort go? We still have the chance of living in a developed society and there are some advantages to that. It’s ok to use a washing machine instead of washing your cloth by hands. It’s ok to use a car instead of riding a bike. But I think using the drive-in instead of walking to the bank is ridiculous. I think using your car instead of walking 10 minutes is silly. And I do it myself. I’m lazy to cook my food so I go out to eat, or I even order food to be delivered to me…. And if I do it, my kids will see it. I can’t stand the thought that I am teaching that to them. Am I teaching them to be lazy? Noooo! From being comfortable, we are going to easiness, and then crossing that subtle line to laziness. Too much comfort brings numbness, physical and mental numbness. And again, I admit that I might be guilty of crossing that line myself of course. But as a father, I have to make sure the education I give my kids, and the example I give them, helps them understand that there is satisfaction to be found in effort, and occasional discomfort. But how do I teach my kids not to be lazy. How do I teach them resilience? How did my parents do? Since I find so much reward combatting my own laziness, with the feeling that I am back in control of my own fate, I need to give this to my kids as well. Leading by example, that’s the way, so I have to be tough on myself. Embracing discomfort…

I better stop or I would start to be too philosophical about this whole idea…. To conclude this blog post, let’s read a few quotes from much smarter and experience people than me…:

  • “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
  • “Discomfort is very much part of my master plan” – Jonathan Lethem
  • “I feel like every five to seven years I really need to put myself in this position of discomfort and exploration, just to survive. Otherwise I feel like I’m falling asleep, like I’ll go crazy if I don’t do it” – Karen O
  • “Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort” – Peter McWilliams
  • “Buddhist practices offer a way of saying, ‘Hey, come back over here, reconnect.’ The only way that you’ll actually wake up and have some freedom is if you have the capacity and courage to stay with the vulnerability and the discomfort” – Tara Brach
  • “Sometimes, discomfort is very uncomfortable. Anybody can get occasionally tired of it, and then it can change fast, where it’s comfort that disturbs you” – Jim Harrison

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