The winds at London’s Heathrow Airport were gusting at 50 mph, and the jet way swayed violently as we embarked onto the plane, much like a ship being tossed to and fro in a storm surge. Losing my footing momentarily, I wondered about the wisdom of departing in these high winds. Suddenly my phone rang, and as I chatted quickly with my partner, a former Navy officer with flight training, he reminded me that not only are the pilots trained to handle such conditions, but it’s exactly what they live for – interesting challenges that autopilot doesn’t offer any longer. Discomfort, I recalled, is when we come alive. Too much comfort can lull us into mediocrity.
It’s funny, but for generations, we as humans have worked hard to give our families increased comfort and security. And that’s generally a good thing, advancing us out of hardship into more stability. Economically, young people strive for the day that they can stop eating ramen noodles or peanut butter sandwiches during college, and their first job allows them to “be more comfortable”. We may say that we don’t need the fancier things in life as long as we have some “creature comforts”. And of course, we want our hotel stay or that long-haul flight to be as comfortable as possible. So how can comfort be a bad thing?
Performance experts have long known the perils of too much comfort. Psychologists Yerkes and Dodson discovered years ago that learning, growth and higher performance happen just at the edge of comfort, when we stretch ourselves beyond the known into the unknown, but not so far that we go into panic. The trick is finding that sweet spot of discomfort so learning can follow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his seminal work, FLOW, likewise found that we unleash our highest degree of personal performance when our perception of the challenge is high enough to stretch us, and our perception of our skills and abilities to match the challenge are equally high enough. Too high, we freak out. Too low, and we’re just bored. Those moments when we stretch ourselves just outside our comfort zone and meet the challenge, can be absorbing, so consuming, so exhilarating that we lose all track of time and allow growth to happen.
When we are too comfortable, we don’t stretch ourselves. We accept our current conditions and settle in. We eat potato chips on the sofa and binge watch a Netflix series. Slowly, over time, we expect those levels of comfort and become dependent upon that which gives us the comfort. We lose our ability to be resourceful and we become wary of anything outside that comfort zone.
That’s when learning and growth stop. And in fact, that’s when too much comfort can lead to bigger problems.
Back to airplanes. In his book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb shares that in his research, he found that airplane pilots who get too comfortable with autopilot don’t practice the very skills they need in times of crisis, and when the unpredictable happens, there are more accidents. The FAA found that pilots often “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems” and they recently changed requirements around automated flying.
The perils of comfort are real. The winds in London turned out to be a great reminder: Pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone makes us come alive, seeking creative responses to the constantly changing world around us. Given the volatility of the world today, I’ll keep pushing into discomfort!