How I learned to embrace being uncomfortable

It’s a sign of something worthy of listening and learning.

Not the photo, but drawn the same day. You get the point.

When I arrived on Stanford’s campus at the end of the summer, I was as giddy as a kid on Christmas. I never dreamed I’d attend Stanford, yet here I was about to spend a year here doing the John S. Knight (JSK) Journalism Fellowship. During my bouts of confidence, I was ready to dig into my journalism project, which explores how to build sustainable local media organizations that resonate in the communities they serve. Simultaneously, I was suffering from a severe case of imposter syndrome. It was making me so uncomfortable. The student store — of all places — is where I really seemed to come face to face with it. I’ve gone in three or four times this quarter to look at Stanford sweatshirts. I’ve looked for my size. I’ve picked out the one I want, and I’ve walked around the store with it. But I have yet to buy one. Me in a Stanford sweatshirt? Fraud.

My first week at Stanford I was asked to draw a picture of another JSK Fellow in my cohort. It was a moment of confidence, so without hesitation, I sketched a portrait of my new colleague. It went over well. She wasn’t offended, but I won’t pretend it looked like her either. We were asked to do this exercise with the purpose of feeling a little uncomfortable. The takeaway was to explore and embrace discomfort because it’s a feeling very often found in exploration. Our facilitator told us to get used to that feeling because our year ahead as JSK Fellows would be full of it.

I appreciated the lesson. But I kind of brushed it off, not quite realizing how uncomfortable I was feeling at Stanford. I put my focus on tools I thought would be more useful in my research. The feeling kept coming back, though. A few weeks ago, I took part in my first organized meditative practice. It was a labyrinth walk. I had no idea what that meant, but I showed up anyway. I didn’t bring a coat, and I was wearing clogs that squeaked with every step. I quickly learned the walk would be in silence and outside in 40-degree weather. I found myself doing the exact opposite of meditating as I fixated on the sound of my shoes and worried about what people thought of the socks I was wearing on my hands as a means to keep warm. I was completely distracted by my discomfort.

In the weeks following, I was taking part in discussions with my fellow JSK Fellows on bias and racism. I was very uncomfortable, especially as I came face-to-face with my own bias. I was noticing my bias at work, on my commute, in the classroom and in my consumption of media. I didn’t think I was that biased, but I am. I found myself avoiding my feelings and focusing on just learning the “right” things to say. I didn’t want to confront it. It’s too uncomfortable.

In each of these instances, something was missing. And last week, I found it. In a discussion with some fellows, the discomfort I’ve been ignoring for weeks and weeks revealed itself. No one called me out, but I realized it was there. I did something different this time with my discomfort. I stopped and asked myself an important question: Why? Why do I feel this way? Why did I say the thing I said? The answers forced me to confront the roadblocks I’ve been building around myself as I find my way in a new city, in a new job, with new people. Instead of embracing the discomfort that comes with the unknown — as recommended — I’ve been shooing it away, batting down ideas that challenge my way of thinking and limiting my ability to see the possibilities of my time and research here at Stanford.

I’ve learned a lot about news, newsrooms, cultures, people, business and technology since arriving on campus. I could ramble on about the amazing experiences here. But the most rewarding thing I’ve learned this quarter is to give myself the space to sit with my discomfort and ask myself “why” — a question as a journalist I’m good at asking other people.

When we did that drawing exercise at the beginning of the quarter, my partner drew a sun as her portrait of me. It’s time to start shedding more light on my discomfort (pun intended). I’ll start by buying that sweatshirt.

If you’ve felt this way — you’re not alone — hit the “clap” button, so I know I’m not either. If you want to talk about feeling uncomfortable and/or how to create more sustainable local media, email me jmckello (at) stanford (dot) edu.