I remember the first time I heard about the Forest Service conducting a “controlled burn” operation. It sounded very strange to me. Here was an agency deliberately established to prevent fires and they were doing so by starting fires. By comparison, the local fire department didn’t go around burning houses. Why should the Forest Service be any different?
A quick search of the concept led me to some terrific insights on ecology, the regenerative effects that fire brings to a broad array of habitats, and the prophylactic power these measures have to prevent plant diseases, overgrowth, and more.
Then there was the biggest benefit of all: controlled burns were probably the best method to prevent catastrophic fire events of the sort that plague the Western United States.
So controlled burning, as bad as it may seem to my aesthetic sense, had deep benefit. Later, I stumbled on the concept again when reading Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. He uses the practice as a direct metaphor for any exercise that creates a measured level of stress to a system as a means of strengthening it against catastrophe. I loved this idea from the start. Particularly because it promotes the counter-intuitive notion that effective prevention requires managed exposure.
Within Reason, Of Course
What does the concept of “managed exposure” mean? The idea can come in two forms:
Simulated stress tests.
Think of it like fitness tests. Can you run a mile? How fast? Can you do a pull-up? How many? Exposing the body to these trials strengthen it. Continued stress can improve the performance, too. So long as you don’t overdo it.
Stress tests are also the way we can conduct what Gary Klein calls the premortem in his fabulous book Sources of Power. The book review is here. These premortems test our best-laid plans to find how what might be the downfall. It’s a thought exercise in managed exposure that helps us uncover fragility in our ideas.
Limited, but real, exposure.
This is where controlled burns come into play. After all, these burns are actual fires in actual forests. It’s real exposure and the “managed” component comes from a whole team of firefighters working around the flames to make sure the fire doesn’t spread too much.
This is also the way we teach our children to ride a bike. We work with them in small, mostly-controlled environments (parking lots rather than highways) with our hands floating just outside their body to catch them if they fall. That posture, that scene, creates one of the more beautiful images I’ll ever see of people helping people. The child is on the bike, fully exposed to the risk, with us there to limit speed and sway and encourage them onward. I love it.
Flu vaccines, job interviews, swimming lessons … these are all forms of limited exposure to real stress.
Together, these two methods of exposure can be better described as instances of deliberate discomfort. And whether we think of this from the standpoint of Stoic tradition, as featured in William Irvine’s book A Guide To The Good Life (book review here) or in Taleb’s concepts from Antifragile, the fundamental benefits are the same. As Taleb writes:
Variations act as purges. Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system. Likewise, absence of fluctuations in the market causes hidden risks to accumulate. The longer one goes without a market trauma, the worse the damage when commotion occurs.
That last part is what matters most: we willfully cultivate these “variations” and discomforts for our long-term health. Because the longer we go without such stresses, the weaker we become.
We all understand this as it relates to exercise. As we get older, our default condition is to rest. But rest begets a desire for more rest. The couch and its many comforts becomes a cushioned trap from which we must force ourselves free.
Think about that. It’s such an adult thing to do, to force ourselves out of a comfortable position because we don’t want to get too comfortable.
And because we know we’ll enjoy exercise if we ever just get around to doing it. Our body thanks us for the effort. It produces euphoric sensations, confidence, and pride. We know it’s good for us and we feel good afterward. Can we get that feeling in other aspects of life?
Deliberate Workplace Discomfort
No matter what line of work, every person in every job needs to stretch themselves. It doesn’t matter if they’re happy with the work, have no further aspirations, or have mastered the whole suite of skills necessary to succeed. Every person must still generate some amount of vocational discomfort.
Why? Because equilibrium is a myth. We’ve all heard about the “balance of nature” and the allusions of symmetry in the environment. This is what Elton John would call “The Circle of Life.”
The truth is a little more violent. In reality, whatever balance we think we see in nature is the result of a millennia of trench warfare between species. Every tree in the forest strives for resources and seeks to gain every inch of ground to further propagate its species. Grasslands fight these forests for territory. Literally. The grasses seek to expand and so, too, do the forests. A stalemate emerges between the two biomes and you get a nice forest in a field or a nice field in a forest. For now.
Then, when something new is introduced (typically by humans), it isn’t that the “balance of nature” is interrupted. It’s more like the odds are suddenly, artificially tilted in one biome’s favor. So if you clear-cut a forest, the grasslands have advantage and will deliberately seek to spread. If you don’t maintain the grassland, the trees will drop seeds, those seeds will take root, and a new thicket of small saplings will emerge victorious.
The point here is that sustained equilibrium is nothing more than momentary stalemate. It’s stagnation. In the long run and on the margins, we are always either slightly growing or slightly shrinking. So contentment is vital to our mental health but it shouldn’t be predicated on stasis or a perpetual status quo. Or else contentment will fade just as surely as everything else that changes before it.
Okay, that aside, the notion of vocational discomfort is especially important to the high-performing, contented professional in the workplace. Why? Because their contentment is fragile. It won’t remain. Their performance is fragile, too.
You see this firsthand when a new hire comes into the team and disrupts “the way we do things around here.” The top performers often become sensitive, defensive, protective, and this is a very odd behavior for someone who really just likes their job. It takes them off their game.
So how can this discomfort be channeled? There can be trainings, of course, and promotions or job swaps or other such things. Sure.
But to return to the idea of a controlled burn, I think the best way to channel deliberate discomfort in the workplace is to simulate or truly expose the team to worst case scenarios. No powerpoint trainings. No simulations. No web exams. Play out the worst case scenarios.
What are these scenarios? It usually involves the challenge of providing great work in spite of some resource shortage. There’s something fascinating about the way a team can band together and deliver great performance when one of their colleagues is away for two weeks on vacation. I’ve also been amazed at the way people can improve their communication in the midst of an internet outage.
Why wait for those things to happen on their own? What if there was an organization-wide day of no email? Or not meetings? Or what if your top-performer had to go an entire week without any support staff?
I’m sure this sounds strange since (a) there is work to be done, and (b) you got plenty of real problems without adding any simulated/deliberate ones to the pile. All the same, the opportunity here is to truly test (and thus grow) a team’s existing skills in new environments rather than attempting to expand their skills with some feeble training session that takes as much time and produces less results.
And remember: just because it seems like you got something good going without any need for such interventions, equilibrium is a myth. We’re always either marginally diminishing or marginally increasing in skill, strength, and ability. Better to disrupt that so-called equilibrium in our own way than leave it to randomness.
Deliberate Relationship Discomfort
This idea can apply to friendships, too. Relationships of all kinds. In a way, it already happens. We have cherished friends who, for many reasons, we see only once every few years. That creates a certain amount of inadvertent stress. In the right circumstances, that stress strengthens the friendship.
It’s the old adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Once reunited with that friend, it’s like you were never apart. That time and distance has a funny way of showing who the truest, closest friends really are.
Road trips are another form of deliberate discomfort. Want to strengthen a bond with a friend? Ride 200 miles together.
Notice I didn’t write “ride 2,000 miles together.” After all, this is about managed exposure. And that means providing some limit. A 200 mile trip is a good practice. Otherwise, unless it’s your closest friend from childhood, I don’t know many people who can stand the strain of a 2,000 mile road trip. You have to work up to that.
In closing, I’m reminded of another adage derived from nature. This one is attributed to Publilius Syrus, a former Roman slave who lived a fascinating life and provided a tremendous body of work that includes the modernized expression:
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Or as Taleb puts it:
We saw that absence of fire lets flammable materials accumulate.
Stillness and prevention have their place but we should remember there is no equilibrium. Even when things feel right, perfectly balanced, there is only stagnation. And that stagnation creates something worse: delay.
We can’t prevent discomfort any more than we can prevent forest fires; we can only delay them. But delay allows accumulation (be it moss, flammable materials, body fat, or lethargy) and that accumulation just amplifies and multiplies the degree of unpreventable discomfort.
So let’s stay ahead of the curve, shall we? Prescribed burns is a metaphor for prescribed discomfort. Deliberate exercise in all facets of life. I don’t want to do it but I know I should.
It is hard work staying healthy. But constant comfort, and constant prevention of discomfort, carries a greater cost in the end.