Succeeding at the Edge of Discomfort

When you look at the top performers in every domain, all of them share one thing in common. They live their lives at the edge -- at the edge of discomfort.

All growth comes from this edge. It's a thin line between success and failing.

This is especially apparent in the weight room.

I've been lifting weights on and off ever since I was 14 years old. What I've learned is that your muscles do not grow if they are comfortable.

If you can lift weight 10 times comfortably, you may be able to maintain your muscles, but they won't grow.

The reason why?

There is no tension. No discomfort. No need for them to grow.

In comparison, let's say you lift a weight 6 times comfortably, but the 7th and 8th repetitions are very uncomfortable.

Then, let's say you find the 9th repetition extremely difficult, as it takes you three times as long to lift the weight.

Your muscles burn like crazy. Sweat drips down your forehead. Your body trembles to keep that weight moving ever so slowly, and then you finally do it successfully.

And then on the 10th repetition, the same thing happens, only in the middle of the trembling and muscle burn, your muscle "fails." You can't complete that last repetition and your body is exhausted.

What every weightlifter knows is that, the next morning, there's a good chance you will be sore. And it is that soreness that signals your body that you lacked enough muscles to handle the load placed upon it.

This is what causes a muscle to grow. Your body builds more muscle in an attempt to handle the load you placed on it last time.

Stated differently, the entire value of a weight training workout is in the final repetition of each exercise -- the one where your muscles struggle profusely and then "fail."

It's the last repetition, where you struggle, that's responsible for most of your muscle growth -- hence the term "the edge of discomfort."

The same is true when it comes to developing career and life skills.

When you're learning a new skill, the place of optimal struggle is one where you're being severely challenged, but not outright overwhelmed.

If a work project is too easy, you learn nothing. (If a weight is too light, you don't get stronger by lifting it.)

If a work project is way too hard, you fail immediately. There is no struggle. It's a complete and immediate failure.

The optimal level of struggle is where a task is 10% - 20% out of reach of your current skill level.

I call this living your life at the edge of discomfort.

All of the top consulting firms base their professional career development around this principle.

At McKinsey, just as I got comfortable with a particular kind of skill, my engagement manager would give me new harder work that I had never done before.

In my entire time at McKinsey, I was NEVER comfortable EVER.

Once I got the basics of analysis, they had me manage clients. Once I could manage clients, they had me manage other consultants.

Once I understood how to do market entry strategy, they had me do sales force performance optimization.

Once I grasped how to do that, they had me do human resources strategy.

Once I understood retail, they had me work with financial institutions. Once I grasped that, I worked in technology.

It was ENDLESS. Never the same challenge twice. Always something new.

The top firms in industry do the exact same thing.

General Electric is famous for doing this.

(Incidentally, more Fortune 500 CEOs were former GE or McKinsey employees than former employees of any other companies in the world.)

When you're on the "high potential" track (ranked in the top 1% of the company), they rotate you to a new job roughly every two years.

Got good at sales? Great, now do engineering. Ran a finance organization? Good, now run a manufacturing line.

Ran a business in Asia? Great, now do it in Africa. At GE, you do this over 30 - 40 years and at the end of the process, you get Fortune 500 CEO.

Once I was in industry, I crafted my own career path to constantly seek new challenges.

Once I started my own company, I did the same...

Always learn new things... ALWAYS.

Never feel comfortable... EVER.

It's the only way to grow your skills and your career.

So, my question for you today is: Are you comfortable?

Are you living at the edge of discomfort?

If not, and if you desire to, what can you do to get to your edge of discomfort?

Give it some thought...

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45 comments… add one
  • Bowen Nov 5, 2015, 10:59 am

    Once again, another great article! I started my own company several weeks ago, and everyday has been a challenge. But the days we mess up the most are also the days we learned the most. Thank you very much for sharing with us.

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:18 am

      Bowen,

      Same for me. I have a love/hate relationship with those days. Very… well… Uncomfortable. :)

      Victor

  • Yonodu Nov 5, 2015, 10:57 am

    I currently work with the American University of Nigeria, Recruitment and Marketing team.
    I have been with this company for a year and a half now. When i first joined the university, the work was challenging, very much so. You see, the University is located in an unsettling zone – North East. In the North East, there has been several bomb blasts orchestrated by the renowned Boko Haram. It was also the region were the Chibok girls were kidnapped.

    Working with the sale team, we had to set up strategies to convince new parent’s and students to come to this region to study. First six months at the job, you can imagine the challenge for me! After doing this for a year, i honestly feel like i have the hang of it. I understand the processes and strategies. Now i seek new challenges.

    Can you advise me on what new areas i could develop myself in?

    Thanks.

    Yonodu

  • Xiaoxi Nov 5, 2015, 10:44 am

    Totally agree!!!

  • Ketan Patel Nov 5, 2015, 10:29 am

    Hi Victor,

    Your latest note about ‘edge of discomfort’ is a great one. I’ve always tried to do this but in traditional product role (Product Management/Marketing), it is tough to do. So, how else do you suggest that one can ensure to keep finding challenging projects outside of the current organization to keep that edge?

    Thanks
    Ketan

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:20 am

      Ketan,

      Volunteer for cross functional projects within your firm, or volunteer with a non profit organization outside of your firm. There are always people who value highly talented free labor.

      Victor

  • yubing Nov 5, 2015, 10:19 am

    Very powerful article Victor. I am a big supporter of the concept of “edge of discomfort” . Gave a TEDx talk earlier this year on exactly that topic!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmN4xOGkxGo

  • F Nov 5, 2015, 10:02 am

    Hi Victor,

    I can relate to your thoughts in this article well. Growth and progress in any form are almost always to be found outside of one’s comfort zone.

    However, I am left with one unanswered question regarding this concept: Is there a point, whether objective or subjective, where an individual could(/should) stop and say: “I’ve come far and seen ENOUGH progress, now I will SETTLE and remain comfortable.”? If yes, how do you identify that point?

    My guess is that if such point exists, it will be at a later point in life (maybe retirement age?). But for someone who has been huffing and puffing, and progressing through life, I can’t imagine that “stopping” to advance after all those years would feel “comfortable”. It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it?

    Appreciate your thoughts.

    Best,
    F

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:18 am

      F,

      It is a paradox. Personally, I believe in constant growth. I never plan to be comfortable. I’m always learning new things. However, I have found that lately many of my growing experiences are in my personal life than professional. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that trend, but thought I’d mention it.

      Victor

  • Tumi Nov 5, 2015, 9:52 am

    Hi Victor

    This is funny as I have just started a new job this week and have been feeling rather uncomfortable. I’ve just read your piece…wow! Thank you for this. I’ve been panicking as I’ve been employed to set up and run a new division and I’ve never done that before!…but now I think I will take a deep breath, calm myself down and learn to live at the edge of discomfort!

    Regards
    Tumi

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:15 am

      Tumi,

      Congratulations! I often tell people that report to me that if you are 50% excited by the challenge I’ve assigned and 50% scared, then that’s exactly as I intended.

      Victor

  • George Nov 5, 2015, 9:48 am

    Most people oppose discomfort because they want to maintain their control over the current situation. Few are crazy enough to master something fast and then move on to master something else. They would be called “superficial” by the others simply because if the time they put into understanding a situation. Effort is oftentimes hidden.

  • Abhishek Nov 5, 2015, 9:48 am

    Hi victor,
    I have been following you since last 3 years ever since I started my MBA. I love everything you do , even the apology you sent us a few weeks ago .
    Your emails cover a variety of topics however I was wondering if you could write something on leading people or managing people . The reason why I ask you that is that I might have to manage people soon and I am a bit nervous about that .

    Would be a great help if I could learn from your experience.

    Thanks much .

  • John Nov 5, 2015, 9:28 am

    Hi Victor,

    I liked your recent article, “Succeeding at the Edge of Discomfort” – but I have a few questions.

    When a skill level is 10%-20% more difficult than what you are used to – what are the practical mental techniques, mindsets, or practices to adopt to make that learning time more effective and efficient?

    Thanks and always enjoy your insights. :)

    Best,
    John

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:14 am

      John,

      The 80/20 on that is to find someone who already has those skills and either learn from them explicit or use them as a role model to emulate.

      Victor

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