When I chose “Embrace Discomfort” on January 1, 2020, as my word or phrase of the year, it was something I simply knew I needed to do to grow, evolve, and get better. 

It was also a natural transition from 2019’s word, “Notice”.  Embrace Discomfort: it sounded simple enough. Little did I know how significant it would become, not just for me, but for all of us in more ways than one.

Embracing discomfort is inherently challenging. It requires getting out of our comfort zone or “exposing ourselves” to try something new, to stretch, to experiment doing something a different way, or to be vulnerable and take a risk. It applies in business and in life. Embracing discomfort is meaningful because it is a catalyst for personal and professional self-development and growth. And, if we are pushing to achieve our potential, embracing discomfort is often a pre-requisite for success.

In 2020, nearly everyone has had some type of discomfort thrust upon them in a mighty way. The Coronavirus and all that it entails have changed job situations, where and how we work, how we interact with others daily, how we shop, and how our kids experience school, just to name a few things. While it has certainly been challenging and at times overwhelming, there are many examples of individuals and organizations embracing discomfort (because they had to) and emerging stronger.

Think about some of the remarkable accomplishments in the past six months:

  • Many organizations that never contemplated allowing “remote work” or “remote workers” became 100% remote within a matter of days at the outset of the shutdown. 
  • Countless individuals who had never connected with others using a video platform are now using it regularly for communications, meetings, and/or training.
  • A myriad of global businesses have evolved their customer service experiences to contactless delivery and execution. 

Conservative estimates predict that the US has advanced the equivalent of five years technologically in the past six months. The virus has accelerated change with many positive outcomes even if embracing discomfort was not by choice and the circumstances were outside of our control. 

This begs the question, what if we shifted our perspective from reaction to intention? What if we initiate and embrace discomfort to challenge assumptions, explore new business models, and create new outcomes? What if we radically accepted current reality and used it to re-imagine and explore the strategic possibilities of what could be?

On  March 31, 2020, Jim Collins created a brief video on the Stockdale Paradox.  During his time as a Stanford professor, Collins had an opportunity to interview Admiral Jim Stockdale about his eight years as a prisoner of war. When asked how he persevered, Stockdale responded:

“I never wavered in my faith, not only that I would get out, but I would turn it into the defining event of my life that, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Even in a situation that was outside of his control, Admiral Stockdale made a choice – to turn his discomfort into the defining event of his life that he would not trade. While these past six months pale in comparison to the experience Stockdale had as a prisoner of war, we can make a similar choice.  Maybe it’s not that we make this “the” defining event of our life, but rather we make it “a” defining event in our future success. 

If you want to look at 2020 as a defining year that you would not trade, what will you do differently in the next four months? As a leader seizing this situation — not because you have to, but because you choose to — what lies ahead? What can you do to make it a defining moment in your success – for you personally and for your business?

It’s a powerful leadership exercise to reflect on these questions and identify the opportunities.  For each of us, the answers will differ, but it is likely they will have one thing in common.  They will require us to embrace discomfort, and if we want to grow, to be better, and emerge stronger, that is what we must do.