Summary of The Beauty of Discomfort

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The Beauty of Discomfort book summary




  • Innovative
  • Concrete Examples
  • Inspiring


In this thoughtful collection of case studies, Amanda Lang, author of The Power of Why, presents personal development concepts that she illustrates with concrete business examples. She assures readers that change can be positive, but determining how to change is difficult. Lang demonstrates her theory-in-action with fascinating stories of athletes, military leaders, and long-term and novice executives. Each mini-bio is engaging and provides glimpses into the lives of fascinating people who accepted discomfort in order to thrive. The stories deliver Lang’s motivational self-help messages.


  • Successful people demonstrate “comfort with discomfort.”
  • Accepting discomfort is easier if you find a valuable meaning behind it.
  • Expressing gratitude can ease stress and yield additional reasons to be grateful.
  • Reinvention may be painful and could expose you to criticism, but it can play a pivotal role in successful change.
  • To be more comfortable with discomfort, simply believe you are in control.
  • The question “What’s next?” usually follows change.
  • Innovation may emerge from embracing the unknown.
  • Sustainable change requires accepting discomfort for an extended time.


Successful people demonstrate “comfort with discomfort.”

For many people and in many circumstances, change is uncomfortable. Whether you’re starting a diet, modifying a departmental policy, getting a divorce or launching a new business, the process you undergo can be unpleasant. How you tolerate and then embrace change may play a pivotal role in your success. Some creative and successful people don’t merely endure change; they seek it out over and over, demonstrating a comfort with discomfort. These innovators transform discomfort from a threat to an “encouraging sign.” The results: resiliency, success and happiness.

Accepting discomfort is easier if you find a valuable meaning behind it.

The ability to adapt to new processes, circumstances or ways of thinking is fundamental to your success. Accept change by finding a valuable meaning behind it. Change your mind-set or attitude, and think through your actions. You can reframe the sense of discomfort, shut out negative thoughts, invent a sense of perceived control, reinvent yourself or revamp your thinking. To change something large like a business, change your personal relationship with discomfort.

Expressing gratitude can ease stress and yield additional reasons to be grateful.

That’s what Jim Moss, a former professional lacrosse and hockey player, did when Guillain-Barré syndrome nearly incapacitated him. The disease breaks down the connection between the central nervous system – the spinal cord and brain – and the rest of the body. Moss relied on a positive mind-set and expressions of gratitude to get him through. Soon after his hospital discharge, he walked back into a hospital room for the birth of his daughter.

“Think constructively about the past and optimistically about the future.”

The gratitude that Moss practiced is generally a reaction to positive interactions with someone else. He focused on and talked about the things for which he was grateful. He lived out a lesson research verifies: Expressing gratitude eases stress and yields additional reasons to be grateful. Moss’s focus on positivity paid dividends in his physical recuperation and in the help others provided. His gratitude brought out the best of those who were supporting him. His therapists came in off the clock to donate time and assistance, giving “‘compound interest on positivity.’”

“Thinking of the pain as a work in progress, a means to an end – and, crucially, as something that will pass – also makes it more bearable.”

Recognizing the role gratitude played in his recovery, Moss launched a gratitude-based business, Plasticity Labs (PL), in 2013. He believes gratitude should be prominent in business environments because it positively influences workplace satisfaction. The firm’s mission is to help people find the tools to bring happiness into their lives. It also builds apps to help corporations do what is good for their profits and their people.

“Choosing to focus on the reasons you have to be grateful instead of the reasons you don’t not only improves your happiness quotient but also brings out the best in those around you.”

An early client was Unitron, a company that sold hearing aids. Its sales were weak and its customer service bleak. The CEO believed customer service might improve if his staff members were happier. Unitron’s needs spurred PL to develop “a workplace social-networking app” to evaluate the happiness of employees while fostering optimism and resilience. The app gives staff an anonymous way to develop resilience, empathy and optimism. It provides a context for reframing potentially painful events – like a wicked commute – into opportunities for meeting prep or daydreaming. The app delivers rapid feedback to PL’s corporate clients, enabling agile responses.

Reinvention may be painful and could expose you to criticism, but it can play a pivotal role in successful change.

Stanley McChrystal enrolled at West Point in 1972. He became a dedicated soldier and graduated the rugged Ranger School. By the mid-2000s, he led the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), overseeing “covert military operations [and] counterterrorism reconnaissance,” including those by US Special Forces.

“It’s harder to blame someone else (including your boss) for foul-ups when the buck stops with you.”

In Iraq in the autumn of 2003, McChrystal understood that his lifelong training had not prepared him for al-Qaeda. This enemy relied on new technologies and communication methods that enabled it to move quickly, remain decentralized and disappear. The US military was like an old, staid business, using the same “playbook” as always, behaving like the slow hierarchy it was.

“You don’t have to be 100 percent ready for every job before you take it. Being a little not-ready makes you stretch and grow and find your way into the role.”

McChrystal realized al-Qaeda acted like a disruptive entrepreneurial start-up. He was familiar with reinvention – he’d used it to revolutionize the Ranger training program in the 1980s after students had died during exercises. McChrystal threw out long-held wisdom about warfare and leadership. He changed the leadership structure and revolutionized sharing information so the Army could be as nimble as al-Qaeda.

“The problem isn’t discomfort with challenge and change, but how we respond to and manage – or don’t manage – it.”

McChrystal bucked military traditions, throwing off 20th-century standards for a 21st-century approach. His team reconfigured the physical work area at Balad Air Base near Baghdad, tearing down cubicles and offices in favor of an “open-concept plan,” which included a central “mission-control area.” Transparency and openness ruled. Groups that people previously considered low in the pecking order gained more of a voice.

“Attending to and learning to tolerate discomfort lessens its power and increases the likelihood of positive change.”

Though McChrystal and others dealt with discomfort, he believes openness never “hurt more than it helped.” He employed technology in new ways; “computer geeks” joined the team. By 2007, he received accolades for his achievements and the modernization of JSOC’s operations. McChrystal later launched The McChrystal Group, which advises companies on how to transform operations and improve performance.

To be more comfortable with discomfort, simply believe you are in control.

Jessica Watkin was a teenager when she began losing her sight. “A rare genetic degenerative condition called familial exudative vitreoretinopathy (FEVR)” progressed from her left eye to her right, eventually leaving her almost fully blind. She battled a sense of loss, particularly of her personal identity, but also of things she’d loved, like acting, choir and reading.

“Mentally tough people choose to bounce back, often using failure as motivation to become stronger and perform better.”

By 17, Watkin sought a way to manage her destiny. Believing you have a sense of control over something unpleasant can take multiple forms. Thinking that you have a “mental strategy” for addressing an issue will make it “less unpleasant.” Watkin reinvented herself and learned new skills. She worked with a “mobility expert” to learn how to get around the University of Guelph campus. She reorganized her closet so that she knew which clothes matched to make outfits. She tapped into her memory differently, improving her ability to navigate on her own. She finished a four-year honors degree with a double major. She turned her loss of vision into “something worth exploring,” not something to deny.

“Nobody else is going to look out for you. That’s why you have to get in the back door or break down the window, or do whatever it takes.”

As Watkin shows, how you think or don’t think about something can make it bearable. You can become more resilient. You can make the transition from a victim to someone who is in control. To be more comfortable with discomfort, you don’t need control. Instead, you need to believe that you are in control. Your actions matter, but your thoughts matter, too.

The question “What’s next?” usually follows change.

The ambiguity that follows change, particularly setbacks or crises, can make you want to withdraw. Working to embrace it, though, can yield positive results.

“We can’t change every little thing that happens to us in life. But we can change the way we experience it.”

David Ossip and Daniel Debow were principals of Toronto-based Workbrain, a software start-up that sold workplace management programs. They learned to embrace uncertainty and bad luck as they launched the company. Their software automatically scheduled employees’ shifts, a task that the airlines they targeted needed in order to perform efficiently.

“It’s uncomfortable to tell people you’re trying something that could fail. It’s uncomfortable that you’re doing something that could be a big flop.”

They landed British Airways as a client, but their plan to announce the relationship during an “airline show” on September 11, 2001, faced unimaginably bad timing. After a few years of recovery, they had a growing client list. In 2003, they arrived in New Jersey to work with their client Toys “R” Us, and were refused admission to the office building. The SARS epidemic that hit Ontario made many people in the United States believe anyone from Toronto was a contagious risk. Ossip and Debow had to come up with an alternate plan to save their business and its relationships. Debow believed if you push through the unknown, answers eventually materialize. He asked questions, read books and talked to experts.

Innovation may emerge from embracing the unknown.

Throwing yourself into the unknown may feel like drowning, but can lead to remarkable innovation. Tap into your creativity, a skill that requires tolerating ambiguity, particularly in today’s rapidly changing world. People who approach problems creatively demonstrate a preference for uncertainty and complexity. They handle disarray well, can bring order to chaotic scenarios, apply unconventional thinking and take risks.

Sustainable change requires accepting discomfort for an extended time.

Comfort can trap you. It can prevent you from seeing the long-term potential of change. Making change means turning from comfort and embracing discomfort. This is easier when someone you trust is by your side, supporting you with reminders of why your goals are valuable, providing guidance and offering perspective. Change is a process. It isn’t the result of a decision to start something – like to begin an exercise regimen or to leave a relationship. The change process isn’t linear. It includes a lead-up phase, which may be invisible before you see the concrete evidence of change. The process continues after the initial signs of progress.

“The most consistent predictor of creative achievement is ‘openness to experience’ – a mélange of intellectual curiosity, thrill seeking, openness to your emotions and fantasy.”

Because you go through various stages, you must bear with and embrace discomfort for an extended time. Understanding the stages can help you manage the inevitable discomfort that comes with change. Psychologists James O. Prochaska, John D. Norcross and Carlo C. DiClemente evaluated how people who sought to modify problematic behaviors succeeded.

Their “Stages of Change study” identified these relevant stages:

  • “Pre-contemplation” – You may be unaware of an existing problem, even if others perceive it. You lack internal motivation and serious intent to change. You can be stuck in this phase for years.
  • “Contemplation” – You acknowledge that you face a problem. You think about how to respond to it. You evaluate possible actions, but don’t take any. The comfort you derive from your habit – say, binge eating – seems more appetizing than the comfort that could result from the change, such as looking and feeling better. This stage can drag on for years. You may likely overestimate the value of your current situation and the difficulty of the discomfort that change may entail.
  • “Preparation” – Now you intend to change, and you’ve crafted a plan. You’re likely baby-stepping it, tweaking behavior, but not making full-scale changes.
  • “Decision making” – Commit to the changes you decided to implement. The better the plan, the more likely that you’ll execute it.
  • “Action” – You modify how you behave. It may feel like you changed at this point, making it easy to believe the work is done. Defend against complacency: Don’t underestimate what you must do to maintain the change.
  • “Maintenance” – Avoid falling back on old habits. This is a stage of ongoing changes and may never end, as when breaking an addiction. Own the new identity you earn.

Reinvention may seem like the most difficult change, but is manageable if you do it to move away from pain. Embracing the opportunity to change means choosing to stretch, challenge yourself and grow. Being aware of the possibilities of change means being awake to the possibilities of your own life. It’s never too late to reframe your relationship with comfort or to jump straight into the process of change.

Ray Zahab is an ultramarathoner who’s learned to manage pain through his misadventures in extreme climates, like the Yukon and the Kalahari. He turned his passion into a business, impossible2Possible, which takes young adults on “extreme expeditions.” Participants may face discouragement, injury and failure, but learn to reframe their responses to the experience. Zahab’s advice: When you tackle discomfort head-on, think of it as a reminder to prepare properly, not as a signal to give up. As ultramarathoners advise, never stop moving.

About the Author

Amanda Lang is an anchor for BNN Bloomberg. She also wrote The Power of Why.

This document is restricted to personal use only.

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