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The Irresistable Lightness of "Healthy Discomfort"!

The first time I heard about "Healthy Discomfort"* it was in the form of leadership advice given to me by Bob Swan, the bright CFO of General Electric (GE), when I started in their U.S. organization. To this day, it remains one of the few pieces of life advice that have deeply influenced me, and on the implementation of which I am still working studiously.

* "As a leader, you need to have a "healthy discomfort" with the status quo."

Alright, but how can you be both "healthy" and "in discomfort"? What do these two, and at first glance opposing, concepts create together? With your permission, I would like to use some examples to explain to you briefly what this means to me (but to make it clear, I'm in no way making an ambitious statement like "this is the secret to my success"):

First and foremost, at the basis of the American culture, and at the essence of the performance-/achievement-focused environment of companies of this or a similar culture like GE, which have existed successfully for more than a century, is the aspiration "to always do better". In other words, having "discomfort" with the "status quo"...

Regarding the keyword here, “healthy” in this statement means being able to strike a balance between your professional and private life. In the American culture, people seem to lose their grip in that sense – they work day and night for success, keep working while sacrificing their personal time, and consequently become estranged to themselves. That situation, in contrast, is called “unhealthy discomfort”!

What does “discomfort” feel like, then? Its Turkish translation might carry some negative tunes, but to me, it is more like being “restless” in a positive way. Like the desire to do something different/achieve something better… Have a look at the business world, at companies and leaders that have achieved long-term success: From traditional companies like 3M and Nestle, to the new technologist Apple, all have been able to sustain their innovativeness and development. Because their leaders, their teams feel discomfort. Look around you, or think about those people whose bright eyes are the very reflection of their will to live – you will see that they are always focused on development, and always strive to do better. It might be an unusual example, but how come Cem Yılmaz* has been doing the same thing for almost 20 years with unwavering energy/success? There are many comedians around that look as talented as him at the beginning, but then just vanish. This means one of the Turkish stand-up comedians, Cem Yılmaz, too, has “healthy discomfort” :)

In short, to me, the two ends of the spectrum, “healthy uncomfortable” and “unhealthy uncomfortable” are as follows:

Healthy Uncomfortable
  • Always focused on the better and development,
  • Although they find goals important, they don’t let them cast a shadow on the development journey itself,
  • "Discomfort” is felt in a positive way with enthusiasm and willingness.
Unhealthy Uncomfortable
  • Though they are focused on doing better, their goals have got ahead of the journey itself,
  • There is the “real discomfort” of a single-sided, unbalanced life instead of that balance,
  • Although there is development, it is unbalanced, more like that of a body-builder with some of his muscles overdeveloped.

I have experienced both extremes in my GE career of 15 years: While I enjoyed an incredibly high level of energy, career development, engagement and team work in my periods of "healthy discomfort", I felt incomplete, unbalanced, and unsatisfied even when I achieved my targets during my periods of "unhealthy discomfort".

As time went by, and I matured in life, I understood that to achieve "healthy discomfort" in the real sense, you needed to have a key awareness of perspective in life: to focus on the journey itself rather than the result/goal. If you only focus on goals, you arrive at a dead-end after some time, dissatisfaction crops up, and, trying to lay rubber internally on your life road, you see it's to no avail. However, when you adopt the perspective of a journey, you make progress easily while being in focus with the awareness of what you can develop and what you cannot change.

You might ask, isn't there the option "healthy comfortable"? Sure, there is, but although this may seem a bit odd to you, I believe there is no life there, because there is no development! I guess that would be more like being content, or thinking you are content, without moving at all...

In closing, I wish you a "comfortable and balanced" life in "healthy discomfort"!

Kind regards,

Mehmet N. Pekarun