Productive Discomfort

Comfort Zone: “A situation or position in which a person feels secure, comfortable, or in control” —

Some of my greatest skills… are my greatest weakness. I am fortunate to have a strong academic background. I come from parents with strong academic backgrounds and great intellectual curiosity. This was the incubator for my comfort zone.

My comfort zone is literate and numerate in debate; which is a pretentious way of saying that I use words and numbers, facts and figures, to score points. This may not seem comfortable to you; after all, it is my comfort zone not yours. However, I spent many years throughout my childhood in intellectual debate rather than in family conversation; and, those debates were judged. If you do something often enough you get good at it, and it becomes familiar, and familiar becomes comfortable.

My comfort zone is a well-honed and double-edged sword. On one side it has been frequently useful in school, often in my career, and occasionally in my personal life. It is a good ice-breaker. On the other edge it is the single largest barrier to my personal and professional growth. When my family is upset, they do not need a debate or decision tree, they need a hug and safe place to speak. When I work with my professional peers and associates they do not need a professor, they need a partner and an active listener.

Yet, when challenges are great, obstacles large, I am tired or stressed, it is my reflex to retreat to my comfort zone.

“We need a place of productive discomfort,” states Daniel Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” (Riverhead, 2011) “If you’re too comfortable, you’re not productive. And if you’re too uncomfortable, you’re not productive.”

Consistently, my greatest achievements have resulted from stepping outside of my comfort zone. And yes, it is still uncomfortable for me to do so. When I step beyond facts and figures to listen, participate and mentor, I achieve growth, satisfaction and success.

As Seth Godin aptly points out in his book “The Icarus Deception,” (Portfolio, 2012) the Icarian story has been filtered to show that flying too high is hubris and must be punished. However, the complete legend includes warnings from Daedalus, Icarus’ father, to avoid flying too low; this part of the story is lost in cultural translation. In reality, for pilots both literal and metaphorical, it is far more dangerous to stay low to the ground, than to fly high to the sky.

American mythology admires the rare hero who transcends the status quo and reaches beyond others to succeed. Yet, our mythology far more often preaches the wisdom of staying behind and playing it “safe.”

In the “Wizard of Oz,” the most powerful magic in the land is not the wicked witch’s flying broomstick, or Glinda’s flying bubble or magic wand… it is Dorothy’s ruby slippers, purloined from the recently deceased witch of the East. The magic of the slippers is to return the wearer back to whence they came. I, for one, would have much preferred the colorful land of Oz to the black and white and dusty tornado-ed life in Kansas, as depicted in the film.

Frank Capra’s George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life” must stay home too, sacrificing the life of travel and adventure of which he has always dreamed. Staying home has induced him to attempt suicide. Nonetheless, Clarence the angel shows him that staying grounded is where he must remain in order to succeed.

Thus we are taught to stay grounded, and that grounded is comfortable and safe, when indeed, it is not safe. “Success,” to paraphrase Neale Donald Walsch, “begins at the end of your comfort zone.” That is certainly true for me. Personal and professional greatness, pride and excitement beckon above us; we must reach high off the ground to get there.

We were taught to find the “safety zone”, where we could do as we were told, hone our skills, work hard, and “succeed.” The problem is that the so-called “safety zone” does not stay still; personal and professional safety lies in flexibility and the ability to adapt to change. We must step away from our “comfort zone” to succeed.

54 Years ago, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge and made a commitment to America to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.” The challenge was immense — some thought impossible. Thousands of engineering processes were required, many had not been invented, and the human and financial cost was inestimable. President Kennedy did not live to see it, but his challenge was met. Forty-five years ago, on July 16, 1969 two men walked on the surface of the moon, another remained in lunar orbit, and a few days later all three of them returned safely to Earth. “One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind…”

The Apollo space program was one of the costliest human endeavors, ever. And there are some, perhaps many, who ask, “Was it worth the cost?” I say “yes.” The benefits of stepping out of our comfort zone, of flying high, are worth it.

Many of the benefits, as with the challenge, are immeasurable. However, numerous benefits are quite tangible. Inventions including: memory foam, scratch-resistant glass and plastics, communication satellites, freeze-dried foods — including astronaut ice-cream, solar panels, ear thermometers, shoe in-soles, heart bypass surgery and valves, dust-buster vacuums, cochlear implants, articulated prosthetic limbs, anti-icing for aircraft and many others directly derive directly from the NASA space program — over 6000 unique patents thus far. The commercial value of these inventions has a great positive return-on-investment against the financial cost of the program on this basis the “race to the moon” has been a windfall.

Reaching the moon has also yielded demonstrable benefits to health, welfare and quality of life. And, equal in importance are the unquantifiable human benefits; the sense of pride and accomplishment of the hundreds of thousands of people who touched the program, from scientists and test pilots to the seamstress who created the embroidered Apollo 11 patches. They participated in sending Man higher than he had ever traveled before, or has traveled since. They helped us to safely touch the sky. With footprints on the moon, the sky is no longer the limit…

We must fly high. We must step outside of our comfort zone into the uncomfortable unknown, our place of productive discomfort; it is there that greatness lies, it is there we will surprise ourselves and accomplish more than we thought was possible.

David J. Katz — New York City — November 30, 2014


This essay is excerpted from a multi-media presentation by David Katz at RMM 2013, Summits in 2014, Chicago, Bloomfield & New York City, May 1, 2 & 3 2014

David J. Katz is Executive Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer for Randa Accessories, a public speaker, co-author of “Design for Response: Creative Direct Marketing That Works” (Rockport Books, 2000 & 2005), author of more than 100 published articles, and member of the YMA:FSF Board of Governors.

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