Growth Through Discomfort

What Growth Through Discomfort Actually Looks Like...

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Author:  Sterling Hawkins

I’ve been studying growth lately — human Growth Through Discomfort — and the most common models out there seem to be a bit misleading. Or, at the very least, incomplete.

You’ve probably seen something that looks like this:
It plays up the purely positive aspects of growth without at least an acknowledgment of the discomfort that is inevitable. In fact, the supposed “growth zone” could be massively debilitating if it’s too far out of comfort. And when the discomfort isn’t acknowledged and accepted alongside the potential, our tendency is to stop when things get tough.

So, I started to re-imagine it. First in the same construct of concentric circles. But what we’re really trying to do, at least for optimal growth, is perfectly balanced comfort and discomfort, fear and peace, disorder, and order.

And I started thinking through each of the zones…


Comfort alone over extensive periods is the epitome of not growing;  and maybe it’s actually closer to dying. When there’s no stretching of the self and there’s an aversion  to discomfort we’re literally and figuratively, stuck, both personally and professionally. And what’s actually in this  zone is a little disconcerting: of course it’s the status quo, but also included is knowledge-based learning and circumstantial excuses that oftentimes act as shields to real growth.

You can recognize the comfort zone when you hear things like, “I can’t do that”, “unfriend me if you disagree”, “I’m thinking about it (perpetually)” and “I don’t know enough yet”. Statements of this nature are a sure-fire flag that you or someone else is operating in their comfort zone (or at the very least operating in defense of their own comfort). Regardless of the reason, the result is the same: no growth.


Beyond the comfort zone isn’t immediately just fear, it’s actually mild unease. It’s where more linear results live, and where we are when we’re dealing with minor challenges or problems that unexpectedly come up. It’s where we can start to increase our applied knowledge, but it often comes with self-doubt and continued survival based thinking.

How you recognize yourself or others in this zone is when you hear things like “we’ll do that next year”, “we have to do it X-Y-Z way” or “no promises, I’ll do my best”. There is growth present, it’s just very tentative, often inconsistent, and usually slow.

What Growth Through Discomfort Actually Looks Like…

DISCOMFORT ZONE (the real sweet spot)

There’s a sweet spot of discomfort that produces almost a flow state. The perfect balance between fear and peace, discomfort and comfort, courage and self-doubt. It can produce fear, anxiety and maybe even some worry, but you’re so geared toward action and so willing to be on the edge that you don’t have all that much attention being paid to it. This space heightens your creativity and purpose, and over time this is where you build resilience, new possibilities come into view and transformational results take place.

You’ll notice you’re in this space, when you’re so focused on where you’re headed and all it takes to get there, that there’s not much that can bother you. You’ll hear conviction statements like: “I will”, purposeful language like: “we need to for (benefit of group)” and of course, “#NoMatterWhat”. This is where real meaningful, transformational and even exponential growth happens.


Once you push past the discomfort zone  sweet spot, growth and performance starts to diminish. You start being worried about what you’re doing, anxiety can take over and if you become generally overwhelmed it will leave you in a sub-optimal place.

What you’re looking for to recognize this zone is to identify this space with language like: “I’m overwhelmed” or “I just can’t do any more” or perhaps you’ll  even hear exit language like: “If one more thing happens, I’m out”. It’s a sign that you, or your colleagues,  need a little more comfort to get back to the true sweet spot of optimal growth.


This is the farthest point from comfort, and is not some magical land of growth; it’s actually the opposite because it can be impairing and counterproductive. It likely produces panic, leaving  an individual paralyzed by fear with debilitating anxiety. We may retreat to reactive behaviors such as anger and even resignation from the task. Not properly processed, it can have adverse effects on growth overall.

When you or anyone is in this space, it’s almost palpable. The nervous system is on edge, activating the sweat glands, body hair stands up, and the skin may flush. The language and behaviors associated with this zone may include lashing out as a reaction to fear and/or anger. You may experience physical demonstrations of anger, extreme fright and (oftentimes exaggerated anxiety) and may hear language like, “I’m leaving” or “I knew this wasn’t a good idea” “I shouldn’t be doing this”. Results in this zone plummet to status quo or potentially worse.

All together, you’re looking at something more like a bell curve to properly map the range of comfort you can move through.

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The obvious trick here is to stay in discomfort where growth and results are optimized. It’s impossible to be perfectly balanced in discomfort all the time, and I wouldn’t even recommend it as sometimes comfort is, well, comforting. But we should actively seek to find our optimal discomfort space when results are super-important.

How does this new interpretation of growth change how you think about results? Have you noticed you spend most of your time in one particular zone? We’re going to be discussing this more in the #NoMatterWhat Facebook Group if you want to join in.

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