#11: Productive discomfort

Why you should want to do what you have to do anyway.

Yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to develop practical insights about not-knowing. The ideas below are likely to be only partially baked.


I’ve had an uncomfortable month.

I’ve been doing some new research that touches a domain I once worked in but haven’t touched for nearly a decade—during which the technology has changed dramatically. The people I’m talking to for this project are corporate lawyers, barristers, and fund managers—quite different from whom I normally interact with.

Initially, I had no idea what was going on. My domain knowledge seemed outdated. I couldn’t understand the system of priorities we were operating in. The vocabulary used to describe the situation and negotiate strategy was particular to this intersection of two extremely technical areas—so I spent a lot of time asking really basic, stupid-seeming definitional questions. I was also asked to perform roles which were not well defined and which evolved rapidly.

At the same time, I was juggling other personally important work. In early December, I got copy edits back for my book (I’ve come to think of it as my eternal albatross), and had to enter the changes and index the manuscript. For uninteresting and unavoidable technical reasons, entering the copyedits into the manuscript files took nearly two weeks. The indexing took longer. Never having indexed a book before, I didn’t know what I was in for. The best way to describe it is: indexing is turning a book inside-out to reveal its skeleton and make explicit the logical structure of ideas on which it is built.

Professional indexers become adept at this kind of simultaneous structural inspection and construction, but “steep learning curve” is an understatement. Being able to keep this structure aloft and in view (metaphorically) while reading and annotating a manuscript and adding to the structure is a skill that takes a long time to acquire. Without it, three days in, I was deep in the weeds. I’ve had more very late nights and very early mornings this month than I’ve had in many years.

But the month has also felt manageable and been productive. I’m learning to speak a new language about a particular technology that makes sense to lawyers and fund managers. The corrected and indexed manuscript is now back with the publisher and the book’s publication date will soon be set (I cannot wait to never have to deal with the book in manuscript form ever again).

So I could say that I’ve had a sort-of-enjoyable month of profound and professionally consequential discomfort. Though the steepness of the numerous learning curves I’ve been on was often frustrating, it never felt overwhelming. I could always think of the discomfort as something to be thought through and worked out.

This raises the question: What makes it possible to perceive and treat even profound cognitive discomfort as something productive? My half-baked answer is that it probably begins with micro-exposures to situations where uncomfortable ideas are unavoidable.

By nature, I enjoy routine too much and easily become trapped in it. Yet, starting in college, I picked up what seemed to be an inexplicable meta-habit of periodically disrupting some of my biggest routines, either by changing them or by injecting new and inconvenient problems—especially around geography and career.

The seed of this meta-habit was a pair of classes I took from a range designed for first-year students: all small, all seminars (instead of lectures), and all on narrow topics the seminar leaders were interested in which were therefore not clearly (or at all) connected to fulfilling prerequisites for any of the majors. I took one seminar on ancient Mesopotamian seals (not the animals—that cylinder below is in Metropolitan Museum’s collection), and another on field research at the Harvard Forest.

Image result for mesopotamian seal

One approach to course selection in college is to optimize for efficiency—getting the requirements done as early as possible so that you can “enjoy” college more. The other approach is unstrategic and inefficient, featuring classes that have no clear utility and thus slow you down. These two seminars slowed me down. They were seemingly useless because I had no intention of becoming either an art historian or a forest biologist. They were also hard in a different way of thinking about the word.

The seal seminar was taught by Irene Winter, a MacArthur Prize-winning art historian of the ancient Near East. Irene was (still is) intolerant of superficial understanding and impatient with learning by rote. It was not an easy seminar, therefore. The basis of understanding, the technical vocabulary, and the approaches to analysis used in art history were entirely unfamiliar to me. There was a lot of catching up to do. I initially wondered why I’d done this to myself. (Everyone should have the good fortune of being taught by someone like this.) The Forest seminar in my second term was the same again, but in a different field with different methods, vocabulary, and assumptions (that of landscape history and ecosystem biology).

These seminars paid off in an unexpected way: they were distinctly, but gently, uncomfortable introductions to two different fields of scholarly research. Any discipline comes with its own deeply buried conceptual framework, visible generally only when you’re first learning it because of the discomfort of learning something new. The deeper you get into the discipline, the more its assumptions and concepts become second nature and so fade from view. The cognitive discomfort of learning two new ways to think was gentled because the seminars were graded Pass/Fail only—failing was unlikely (even if getting a very good grade was equally unlikely) so the stakes were pretty low. The discomfort was manageable.

The discomfort was beneficial because it was immediately clear how it gave access to new ways of viewing (and thus potentially solving) problems in other disciplines. And the discomfort was explicitly cognitive (the result of being exposed to different ways of thinking about data) so it was easier to treat as a cognitive problem to be solved instead of an emotional one (panic, depression, etc).

I was lucky to encounter these seminars early in college because they were probably among the first—very small—steps I remember taking to voluntarily expose myself to cognitively uncomfortable situations. They demonstrated that the discomfort of the new and unfamiliar could be electively processed in the head as a problem to be explored and solved rather than being processed in the gut as stress and anxiety. And that processing discomfort as a problem to be solved made it possible to benefit from the learning that was the byproduct of trying to solve the problem. (And also that uncomfortable situations may feel disastrous but rarely actually are disastrous.)

Important: I’m not advocating taking seminars in Mesopotamian seals or forest biology. Instead, I’m pointing to these seminars as examples of low-level sources of cognitive discomfort with properties that made them more likely to be productive. For me, they were the seeds of a way to frame discomfort as something to seek out, not avoid, because it could potentially benefit me long-term.

In this framing, I can re-interpret many of my hard-to-justify life choices (leaving Google to work at an art school for a summer, moving from a city I enjoyed living in to a different country I wasn’t sure about, etc) as half-conscious decisions to periodically force myself outside my own comfort zone.

These decisions were driven by the again half-conscious belief that (a) the discomfort would be ultimately manageable and (b) that some learning would result that would make the discomfort worthwhile. To date, these half-conscious beliefs have mostly been accurate. Most times I did this, my baseline level of acceptable discomfort would tick upward.

We’re used to the idea of progressively escalating physical activity in order to build physical capacity—resistance weight training and marathon training programs, to name two examples. Progressive escalation works only when each progression pushes the individual beyond existing capacity by enough to develop that capacity, but not by so much that the individual is destroyed by it. We’re much less used to this idea of progressive overload in application to cognitive activity, as a way to train cognitive or emotional capacity.

Though rarely mainstream, a wide variety of more or less formalized practices already exist for doing this. For instance, last week a friend and colleague in Singapore sent a note about a highly formalized practice for this cognitive training: an extended Vipassana meditation retreat run in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin as taught by S.N. Goenka, from which he had just returned.

Sriven wrote: “my view is that the 10-day vipassana course is an experiential way to learn the uncertainty mindset ... The experience is of discomfort (generated from ‘strong determination sitting’) coupled with reminders to focus on replacing discomfort or craving for bliss with curiosity. This is designed to generate insights (vipassana) about the impermanence of ALL phenomena and the advantage of attaining equanimity (a key element of the uncertainty mindset IMO).”

Instead of fear, anger, or avoidance, responding to discomfort with curiosity leads to a deep exploration of the discomfort’s source, and the possibility of discovering its benefits. Properly designed practices or actions (like vipassana, or committing to learning a new discipline, or moving to a new country) can be ways to train this kind of individual meta-cognition—the most important aspect of which is developing the equanimity required to perceive the world as it truly is. I’ve pointed to some of the benefits above. (And issue #3 highlighted how reality mining uses profound realism as a wellspring for innovation and adaptation.)

Individual meta-cognition training parallels what some innovation teams I study do to train themselves to become increasingly able to deal with being pushed ever further beyond the limits of their ability. These teams commit repeatedly to desperation projects which they know—explicitly—they can’t currently accomplish. Knowing this forces the teams to learn and change, to take on cognitive discomfort they would have avoided if they’d had the choice to. If the desperation project isn’t too far beyond the team’s capacity, this enforced learning lets them bridge the gap. They successfully complete projects that would previously have been impossible.

In essence, these teams use desperation projects to stimulate organizational growth. The experience of growth from a successful desperation project makes it easier to take on subsequent desperation projects. Each desperation project pushes out the comfort envelope a little more. This is uncomfortable organizational meta-cognition training—the side-effect is that it seems to also make them more innovative and adaptable. (I go into much more detail about how desperation by design works in my book.)

Last week, I made the point that the design of previous exposures to discomfort influences subsequent experiences of discomfort. I implied, then, that voluntary exposure to manageably small doses of discomfort can train individuals to be robust to unavoidable discomfort.

Voluntary discomfort seems to be the only viable way to prepare for the inevitable discomfort of an increasingly uncertain world. But, on the plus, it is probably one of the more effective and pragmatic ways for individuals and organizations to learn how to be more innovative.


Not so sombrero.


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Previous issues can be found here. You can find me on the internet at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.