#24: Building capacity

How to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of not-knowing.

During last weekend’s heatwave, I took my permitted one daily form of outdoor exercise in the form of a long, slow, looping bike ride into the center of London, which anyway is just a few miles from where I live. Normally, a traffic-choked, polluted horror which I avoid, central London on Sunday was a cyclist’s dream.

This was Piccadilly at Green Park, where thousands regularly swarm and the bumpers are nearly always in close proximity:

This is one of the benefits of the current state of suspension of business as usual.

And after the first few weeks of restlessly checking Twitter and WhatsApp every minute for actually new news about coronavirus, there is a sense of relief from acceptance. As I said to someone on the phone yesterday, the last month or so has been like watching a very slow trainwreck in realtime, while on the train, and accepting that wreckage is now unavoidable. Another word for it is “resignation.” At least for now the air is clean and the roads are empty.

My instinct is to treat this interruption in normality as a short-term thing because it’s tempting to believe that things will return to normal eventually. But it seems clear that it is now even more important to fight this instinct. Part of that will be to learn how to be in multiple minds simultaneously.

With one mind, enjoying what remains of the normal as it gradually disappears, hoping (but not expecting) it to return. With another mind, perceiving and appreciating what is newly emerging, without the expectation that it will persist. With yet a third, preparing for the unknown that is still to come. Three identities—past, present, and future—that must all be in the foreground at once.

By identity, I mean simply the entirety of how I exist in the world. This includes everything from what I do for work, to what I eat and drink, to what I wear, to where I go for vacations, to how I interact with others. (Suddenly entirely through WhatsApp and Zoom.)

We are always in a state of becoming who we will be in the future, as who we were in the past continually evolves past who we have become in the present. Usually, in more settled, stable times, this process of becoming is so seamless it is hard to see. So, in what seems the blink of an eye, one goes from a disaffected teenager objecting to government suppression of free speech to middle-aged grouch complaining about factchecking standards in liberal newspapers—and this evolution seems totally continuous.

In settled times (a term from sociologist Ann Swidler), it’s rare to be simultaneously confronted by past, present, and future identities that are clearly divergent from each other. For this reason, there’s no need to learn how to hold multiple clearly different identities at once.

But in more unsettled times, the usually imperceptible seams between past, present, and future grow large and obtrusive. Slow evolution of identity is not only impossible, it’s counterproductive. That way lies boiled frog syndrome (issue #16 talked a little about organizational boiled frog syndrome.) In unsettled times like the ones we are in now, there is no choice but to learn how to simultaneously be many people. Adaptation is otherwise impossible.

The ability to be in many minds at once is a capability which is emotionally difficult to build. Fear of change and uncertainty is a real and visceral obstacle to taking action. This emotional obstacle isn’t given enough consideration.

In my book, which I really hope will be out very soon, I explain how the emotional difficulty of innovation work—which is inherently uncertain—can be the biggest obstacle to both doing the work and learning how to do the work. The R&D teams in the book force themselves over this emotional obstacle with a cunning cognitive strategy.

Like the gym-goer who pushes herself every day to go just a little bit further, to lift a little more weight, these teams design their work to force themselves to always confront a bit of emotional discomfort from doing work they don’t know how to do yet. Each project is intentionally slightly uncomfortable and requires learning new things and discarding existing ways of working—but not so uncomfortable it breaks the team. Through this progressive overload, their individual and collective thresholds of emotional discomfort are gradually pushed up.

We could learn from this approach.

Several independent consultants I know have been writing about what to do in this moment of suspended normality. It’s probably a good thing to take this opportunity to build capacity for being uncomfortable, and not just for the independent consultant.

Discomfort training is a capacity building exercise. It’s about building structures that intentionally force confrontation with discomfort, and designing those structures so that the level of discomfort confronted forces learning without causing collapse. The goal is to make a clearly defined cognitive commitment to doing something that you know is emotionally uncomfortable—at risk of using a phrase I hate, to intentionally lean into the discomfort.

Four principles for discomfort training:

  1. Simple actions are best—as long as they provoke discomfort and real failure is possible.

  2. Initial actions should be uncomfortable but manageable—keep initial actions small and singular, and gradually increase their size and complexity.

  3. Commitment is important—tell friends, loved ones, or social media followings to provide external enforcement against wimping out.

  4. Set a determinate end date—to have a clear point at which to review progress and (possibly) decide to cut losses.

Four discomfort training exercises:

  1. Take an uncomfortable action: List five things you avoid doing which you know would be valuable. Choose the three with outcomes which seem at the moment most important to you. Break each down into discrete tasks that must be done in sequence to achieve the desired outcome. Commit to doing the smallest task which is not currently within your ability.

  2. Learn an uncomfortable skill: List five skills that seem personally valuable but are too difficult to acquire (i.e., where failure seems likely). Choose the three that seem most likely to benefit your current life goals. Break each down into discrete actions that must be taken in sequence to acquire the skill. Commit to taking the smallest of these actions.

  3. Engage seriously with an uncomfortable idea: List five people whose work you most disagree with and dislike. Choose the three who are most influential. For each, identify piece of work you hate most (writings, videos, podcasts, art, whatever). Commit to consuming the shortest of these pieces of work and writing at least a paragraph explaining why it makes sense.

  4. Engaging in an uncomfortable social interaction: List three people whose ideas you admire but who you are intimidated by, and write 2-3 lines explaining why you appreciate what you think is their biggest idea. Commit to making contact (via email, Twitter DM, snail mail, etc) with at least one of these people.

I’m making a deck of cards with more of these exercises—blatantly the Oblique Strategies for discomfort. If you have ideas and suggestions, I’m all ears.

Under the volcano.

And also …

More of my realist gloom-mongering in re: the restaurant industry in Jonathan Nunn’s opinion piece in the Guardian and on the Easter Sunday episode of the Food Programme, starting around 18m30s.


If you found this useful or thought-provoking, you should definitely share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.