Succeeding at the Edge of Discomfort

When you look at the top performers in every domain, all of them share one thing in common. They live their lives at the edge -- at the edge of discomfort.

All growth comes from this edge. It's a thin line between success and failing.

This is especially apparent in the weight room.

I've been lifting weights on and off ever since I was 14 years old. What I've learned is that your muscles do not grow if they are comfortable.

If you can lift weight 10 times comfortably, you may be be able to maintain your muscles, but they won't grow.

The reason why?

There is no tension. No discomfort. No need for them to grow.

In comparison, let's say you lift a weight 6 times comfortably, but the 7th and 8th repetitions are very uncomfortable.

Then let's say you find the 9th repetition extremely difficult, as it takes you three times as long to lift the weight.

Your muscles burn like crazy. Sweat drips down your forehead. Your body trembles to keep that weight moving ever so slowly, and then you finally do it successfully.

And then on the 10th repetition, the same thing happens, only in the middle of the trembling and muscle burn, your muscle "fails." You can't complete that last repetition and your body is exhausted.

What every weightlifter knows is that the next morning, there's a good chance you will be sore. And it is that soreness that signals your body that you lacked enough muscles to handle the load placed upon it.

This is what causes a muscle to grow. Your body builds more muscle in an attempt to handle the load you placed on it last time.

Stated differently, the entire value of a weight training workout is in the final repetition of each exercise -- the one where your muscles struggle profusely and then "fail."

It's the last repetition, where you struggle, that's responsible for most of your muscle growth -- hence the term "the edge of discomfort."

The same is true when it comes to developing career and life skills.

When you're learning a new skill, the place of optimal struggle is one where you're being severely challenged, but not outright overwhelmed.

If a work project is too easy, you learn nothing. (If a weight is too light, you don't get stronger by lifting it.)

If a work project is way too hard, you fail immediately. There is no struggle. It's a complete and immediate failure.

The optimal level of struggle is where a task is 10% - 20% out of reach of your current skill level.

I call this living your life at the edge of discomfort.

All of the top consulting firms base their professional career development around this principle.

At McKinsey, just as I got comfortable with a particular kind of skill, my engagement manager would give me new harder work that I had never done before.

In my entire time at McKinsey, I was NEVER comfortable EVER.

Once I got the basics of analysis, they had me manage clients. Once I could manage clients, they had me manage other consultants.

Once I understood how to do market entry strategy, they had me do sales force performance optimization.

Once I grasped how to do that, they had me do human resources strategy.

Once I understood retail, they had me work with financial institutions. Once I grasped that, I worked in technology.

It was ENDLESS. Never the same challenge twice. Always something new.

The top firms in industry do the exact same thing.

General Electric is famous for doing this.

(Incidentally, more Fortune 500 CEOs were former GE or McKinsey employees than former employees of any other companies in the world.)

When you're on the "high potential" track (ranked in the top 1% of the company), they rotate you to a new job roughly every two years.

Got good at sales? Great, now do engineering. Ran a finance organization? Good, now run a manufacturing line.

Ran a business in Asia? Great, now do it in Africa. At GE, you do this over 30 - 40 years and at the end of the process, you get Fortune 500 CEO.

Once I was in industry, I crafted my own career path to constantly seek new challenges.

Once I started my own company, I did the same...

Always learn new things... ALWAYS.

Never feel comfortable... EVER.

It's the only way to grow your skills and your career.

So my question for you today is: Are you comfortable?

Are you living at the edge of discomfort?

If not, and if you desire to, what can you do to get to your edge of discomfort?

Give it some thought...

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45 comments… add one
  • John Nov 5, 2015, 9:28 am

    Hi Victor,

    I liked your recent article, “Succeeding at the Edge of Discomfort” – but I have a few questions.

    When a skill level is 10%-20% more difficult than what you are used to – what are the practical mental techniques, mindsets, or practices to adopt to make that learning time more effective and efficient?

    Thanks and always enjoy your insights. 🙂

    Best,
    John

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:14 am

      John,

      The 80/20 on that is to find someone who already has those skills and either learn from them explicit or use them as a role model to emulate.

      Victor

  • Abhishek Nov 5, 2015, 9:48 am

    Hi victor,
    I have been following you since last 3 years ever since I started my MBA. I love everything you do , even the apology you sent us a few weeks ago .
    Your emails cover a variety of topics however I was wondering if you could write something on leading people or managing people . The reason why I ask you that is that I might have to manage people soon and I am a bit nervous about that .

    Would be a great help if I could learn from your experience.

    Thanks much .

  • George Nov 5, 2015, 9:48 am

    Most people oppose discomfort because they want to maintain their control over the current situation. Few are crazy enough to master something fast and then move on to master something else. They would be called “superficial” by the others simply because if the time they put into understanding a situation. Effort is oftentimes hidden.

  • Tumi Nov 5, 2015, 9:52 am

    Hi Victor

    This is funny as I have just started a new job this week and have been feeling rather uncomfortable. I’ve just read your piece…wow! Thank you for this. I’ve been panicking as I’ve been employed to set up and run a new division and I’ve never done that before!…but now I think I will take a deep breath, calm myself down and learn to live at the edge of discomfort!

    Regards
    Tumi

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:15 am

      Tumi,

      Congratulations! I often tell people that report to me that if you are 50% excited by the challenge I’ve assigned and 50% scared, then that’s exactly as I intended.

      Victor

  • F Nov 5, 2015, 10:02 am

    Hi Victor,

    I can relate to your thoughts in this article well. Growth and progress in any form are almost always to be found outside of one’s comfort zone.

    However, I am left with one unanswered question regarding this concept: Is there a point, whether objective or subjective, where an individual could(/should) stop and say: “I’ve come far and seen ENOUGH progress, now I will SETTLE and remain comfortable.”? If yes, how do you identify that point?

    My guess is that if such point exists, it will be at a later point in life (maybe retirement age?). But for someone who has been huffing and puffing, and progressing through life, I can’t imagine that “stopping” to advance after all those years would feel “comfortable”. It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it?

    Appreciate your thoughts.

    Best,
    F

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:18 am

      F,

      It is a paradox. Personally, I believe in constant growth. I never plan to be comfortable. I’m always learning new things. However, I have found that lately many of my growing experiences are in my personal life than professional. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that trend, but thought I’d mention it.

      Victor

  • yubing Nov 5, 2015, 10:19 am

    Very powerful article Victor. I am a big supporter of the concept of “edge of discomfort” . Gave a TEDx talk earlier this year on exactly that topic!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmN4xOGkxGo

  • Ketan Patel Nov 5, 2015, 10:29 am

    Hi Victor,

    Your latest note about ‘edge of discomfort’ is a great one. I’ve always tried to do this but in traditional product role (Product Management/Marketing), it is tough to do. So, how else do you suggest that one can ensure to keep finding challenging projects outside of the current organization to keep that edge?

    Thanks
    Ketan

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:20 am

      Ketan,

      Volunteer for cross functional projects within your firm, or volunteer with a non profit organization outside of your firm. There are always people who value highly talented free labor.

      Victor

  • Xiaoxi Nov 5, 2015, 10:44 am

    Totally agree!!!

  • Yonodu Nov 5, 2015, 10:57 am

    I currently work with the American University of Nigeria, Recruitment and Marketing team.
    I have been with this company for a year and a half now. When i first joined the university, the work was challenging, very much so. You see, the University is located in an unsettling zone – North East. In the North East, there has been several bomb blasts orchestrated by the renowned Boko Haram. It was also the region were the Chibok girls were kidnapped.

    Working with the sale team, we had to set up strategies to convince new parent’s and students to come to this region to study. First six months at the job, you can imagine the challenge for me! After doing this for a year, i honestly feel like i have the hang of it. I understand the processes and strategies. Now i seek new challenges.

    Can you advise me on what new areas i could develop myself in?

    Thanks.

    Yonodu

  • Bowen Nov 5, 2015, 10:59 am

    Once again, another great article! I started my own company several weeks ago, and everyday has been a challenge. But the days we mess up the most are also the days we learned the most. Thank you very much for sharing with us.

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:18 am

      Bowen,

      Same for me. I have a love/hate relationship with those days. Very… well… Uncomfortable. 🙂

      Victor

  • Kamal Musah Nov 5, 2015, 11:12 am

    Thank you for that amazing piece. You related it to working out which I enjoy very much. It is a daily routine for me. And as such, I was able to connect with this article.

    PS. I love your writing style.

  • Kevin Chon Nov 5, 2015, 11:18 am

    Victor,

    I’ve been subscribed to the Strategic Outlier Letter for about a year now and I’m finally commenting to thank you so much for writing these on a consistent basis for free.

    I learn a lot from these; and even if it’s a topic that’s fairly well known, such as your most recent letter on getting out of your comfort zone in order to grow, it’s such a nice refresher when you put it so clearly with facts and examples. Tbh, I’ve been a little overwhelmed these days because I just started my career in a fortune 100 company in a rotational program that has a very similar culture to GE and McKinsey (no comfort, rotate every 1.5 to 2 years). Like you stated, I’m always learning and just as I start to get a hang of a project or a report, they’ll make me learn a new one. Your letter reminded me that the frustration and discomfort I deal with everyday is what I need to go through to grow. So thank you for reminding me of this. I’m saving this letter for when I need to suck it up and get a dose of the “No pain no gain” reminder in the future 🙂 Now back to month end reports haha.

    Thank you,
    Kevin

  • Ilys Nov 5, 2015, 12:11 pm

    Mostly, I feel comfortable in my work and personal life being. Still, it really makes you rather boring regularly…

  • Rudi Nov 5, 2015, 12:48 pm

    Once again a great post. To answer your question I am operating within the 10-20% threshold of discomfort and loving it.

  • Apurva Nov 5, 2015, 12:53 pm

    Yes, I am living on discomfort but since it’s fluctuating (I am in consulting) so sometime I am not motivate to do my work. It’s completely different than industry.

  • John Kang Nov 5, 2015, 1:16 pm

    Victor,
    Thanks for the great article. One point I would like to make is that high performers succeed at the edge of discomfort because they push themselves AND their leaders allow them to fail in the early stages. If you compare the performance of someone who has been in say one industry/function vs. a high performer brand new, I would think that initially the long-timer has better performance. Over time this may shift, but you have to allow newcomers to grow into a role. I think that is one area where companies can fail is if they try to compare performance at snapshots in time vs. the trend. Also, companies like GE (where I have worked for a short time) understand this concept and value those who continually grow. I think other companies may not value this and would like people to go very deep into one area so they are performing at peak performance all of the time.

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:25 am

      John,

      I totally agree. Certain company cultures are designed for high performers to engage in stretch assignments. In these cultures, the absolute level performance is not the only performance criteria – the trajectory of improvement and pace of achievement is often as important or more important.

      If person A succeeds at a job after 20 years of trying, while Person B achieves the same success within a year — the latter has so much more potential than the former.

      Victor

  • Jeff Nov 5, 2015, 2:38 pm

    Dear Victor,
    I like the example you chose to make your point. Thanks for the crystal clear explanations.

  • York Nov 5, 2015, 3:18 pm

    Absolutely agree! However, as it is to me, human are by nature lazy and reluctant to be pushed at the edge of the discomfort. What “muscles” do you develop to keep yourself going into this position again and again? How do you develop those muscles?

    Thanks!
    York

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:36 am

      York,

      I disagree that people are by nature lazy. I think some people choose the oath of least resistance while others are willing to choose the path of greatest growth. It is a choice.

      It’s not a muscle that needs to be developed. It’s more about knowing your own motivations. My college roommate had a congenital heart defect. His heart beat would sometimes skyrocket to 300 beats per minute. The theoretical maximum heart rate for a human being is 220 beats per minute.

      He had open heart surgery several times. He had a scare about a foot long down the middle of his chest.

      Do you know what he wanted to do as a career?

      He wanted to become a doctor.

      Do you know why?

      Because by all accounts, he should not be alive today. Modern medicine made his life possible.

      So when he had to study late for organic chemistry, do you think he was able to do so?

      Yes.

      He went to Duke for medical school, did a fellowship at the National Institues of Health, and also got his law degree from Yale. He now works for one of the big pharma companies.

      I haven’t talked to him since college. I googled him a year ago to see where he ended up in life. I’m not the least bit surprised. I never had any doubt that he would do what he wanted in life. Never.

      If you lack motivation and drive, you don’t lack any muscles. You lack a a big enough reason WHY. Your dreams may be too small.

      Find your reason why and much of the rest falls into place.

      Victor

  • Daniele Nov 5, 2015, 3:31 pm

    Hi Victor,

    this post couldn’t come in a more appropriate time.

    I changed country before getting graduated, writing my thesis at 3AM after being working for a living.
    At that time paradoxically I use to feel fine: I was aware to do the right thing and to sacrifice myself and usually, as I have also learned from your posts, these two things are a good indicator for success.

    That happened: I have graduated, learned a new language in 4 months and I got a job in a major retail Bank ( I haven’t attended a top university so I wanted to get a “big brand name”) but I don’t feel ready to apply for a Management Consulting position yet.

    And that’s what I realized:

    if you eat a piece of bread before dinner when you are hungry, you must really want the steak that will be served in few minutes time otherwise you’ll be full with just a sneak. Your hunger will come later, at 10 o’clock. When it’s late.

    Motivation is what this “sneak” job took away from me: what would you suggest to bring it back? I want to deserve McKinsey steaks!

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:38 am

      Daniele,

      Motivation is over rated. Action is under rated.

      Apply this month.

      Victor

  • shanta Nov 5, 2015, 7:23 pm

    Hi,

    My name is Shanta and I don’t know if I will ultimately become a consultant but I love your website and material. Especially this post struck a chord with me. Coming from an engineering/lifescience PhD with postdoc experience, I was exploring career options and hit upon your website. I really enjoyed this post in particular because I have felt it in my own career. I love to learn new things and keep switching and trying new things. From chemical engg to cancer research to process improvement. Am hoping the next stop is an industry job in biotech. Glad to know that this is a very important trait.

  • Mert Nov 5, 2015, 9:40 pm

    That is so true, thanks for reminding me that!

  • Radz Nov 5, 2015, 11:24 pm

    I never thought there is a 10%-20% kind of thing to measure a sustainable discomfort.

    Career path wise, I have been in quality assurance, then procurement, then customer service and branch operation , and now in research and consultancy. Always, when I feel need some knowledge, I would look for additional postgraduate degree to supplement my thirst for knowledge required to do my job such that I did my MBA when I needed to understand accounting to understand the account ledger, people management and customer service etc. etc.

    But now, being in research and consultancy area, despite having a expertise in one of the technological area, (a PhD as well) I am always being thrown at a different technological area. 60% of what I counter is novel. (No one could teach me as detailed as I wish, and even google scholar lacks quality information), no proven framework, just a piece of sheet to jot down the possible hypotheses.

    Despite of this, up to 7 years ago I never feel I was living on the edge of discomfort. What happened exactly 7 years ago, I faced failure in one of my project. I was the project leader and sole team member, my collaborator – the technology provider is based in other country, which makes it hard for us to really collaborate other than vague email conversation, computer power was not there – 2Gb/4Gb RAM at most , the computer takes a week to run analysis on big data and produce output. It was very depressing.

    Ever since that failure, I scrutinize most details, especially on the stakeholders expectation and implementation process, of 60% of research project. 60% of the projects has totally 100% new technology. When I do research and consultancy here, my job starts from seeking customers who provide grant to do the research. Customer has specific requirement and we always try to meet the requirement, else we will be jobless :). Once we got it, we have to implement it till successful. And finally, once it is completed, we have to calculate the value created by the research through transforming how people does work, productivity, reduction of failures and downtime, and etc. If, the research fails then no value can be created and bad customer satisfaction. I will get bad KPI. Not only that, if through the job, we could create something useful and commercializable, then we need to get copyright, patent and do some marketing on that. This cycle will keep on repeating when new project is acquired.

    What do you think ? Am I living on the edge of discomfort ? It is quite subjective, right.

  • Sarah Nov 6, 2015, 12:02 am

    How do you reconcile this with the need to be focused and almost specialized in one area?
    I have moved from analytics to marketing to strategy to product design and now in trying to get back into marketing I have to take a step down.
    So much for a broader skill set

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:44 am

      Sarah,

      It doesn’t have to be broader skill set, it can be deeper too. Or it can be can be an integration of what you know with a field you don’t. Apple is brilliant not for its engineering or for its sense of design. It’s brilliant because of the integration of the two – engineers that are artists too. Rare combo,

      Victor

  • Worku Lemma Nov 6, 2015, 1:57 am

    Hi! Victor. Yes it is very good to live at an edge of discomfort. But the discomfort shall be from inside; otherwise it may be sign of failure.

    Victor, have ever worked with a stupid board of directors? My problem is how to go along with incompetent board.

    Regards;

    Worku

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:47 am

      Worku,

      I don’t work with incompetent people. At this stage of my career, I have the power of choice. I don’t work with people who aren’t good at what they do.

      If I didn’t have such a luxury, I would work through them, with them or around them. Don’t focus on how their incompetence interferes with what you would ideally want to do, instead focus of what options remain. It’s a subtle shift but it makes a big difference.

      Victor

  • Álvaro Nov 6, 2015, 3:28 am

    Thank you Víctor!
    I guess in a way 3 very applicable quotes are:
    – do every day/ week something that scares you.
    – leave you confort zone every day at least once (richard brandson i think)
    – if you are not failing from time to time, you are not trying hard enough

    Álvaro

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:40 am

      Alvaro,

      I agree with the sentiment.

      Victor

  • Gloria Nov 7, 2015, 12:47 am

    Again, what a perfect timing!! Speaking of succeeding at the edge of discomfort, I’ve shared my thoughts sometime back when you wrote, “I will face my failure head on (rather than hide from it), receive this gift, and have the courage to try again.” At that time, I received my bar exam result, and it wasn’t what I was expecting..

    Honestly, it’s not easy to go through the same process again. The feeling is far from the “comfort”.

    But when you do.. when you actually live and breathe through it, you will be stronger than you ever were.

    I know this because I succeeded at the edge of discomfort.

    Victor, I passed!!

    Thank you always : )

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 5:39 am

      Gloria,

      That is awesome!!! Congratulations.

      You learned something that I doubt you will ever forget.

      Victor

  • Dave Nov 7, 2015, 10:21 am

    Hi Victor,

    thank’s for that reminder. It applies very well to my current situation and it is an interesting approach to actually embrace the discomfort.

    I am wondering however if it is possible to “feel comfortable in a state of discomfort”. Similarly a weight lifter would actually enjoy the feeling when his/her muscles burn and fail. Maybe it is a bit paradox but I am trying.

    Best, David

    P.S.: Why is it not possible to log-in first and post here without entering Name and Email newly?

    • Victor Cheng Nov 7, 2015, 1:47 pm

      Dave,

      It is possible to be accustomed to being uncomfortable.

      Victor

      PS. I don’t know the answer to your login question.

  • nqobizitha Mlandelwa Ndlovu Nov 8, 2015, 5:03 am

    Great insights. For body building as well as career building.

  • Dorukhan Nov 8, 2015, 6:25 am

    Hello Victor,
    Like Sarah I’ve been thinking for a while that it is better to focus on one subject and excel at it because you get to see different parts of the industry in your internships. And that it is a loss of time not knowing, maybe broadly, what you want to base your career on.

    But what you said made a lot of sense since you can’t really know an industry/ company unless you work there for some time and first couple of years of mgt. consulting being like a crash course is really beneficial.

    Now my question is if we get the feeling of being “jack of all trades, master of none” after the first five years or so, should we always think that we are on the path to F500 or that maybe it is time get out of consulting and focus on one thing? Because like you said there are very few companies that appreciate what you said and they don’t have enough positions for all of us.

  • Ani Nov 9, 2015, 7:56 am

    Victor – thanks for this email. I really needed it this morning, as I’m a new consultant beginning my first client engagement today and definitely feeling on the edge of discomfort. Your email helps me remember that the edge of discomfort isn’t a bad thing!

  • Eduardo Matos Nov 9, 2015, 1:16 pm

    Are you living at the edge of discomfort?
    Make sure you apply this concept to your life as a whole. You shall not work on a great promotion, have a baby and plan your own company all at the same time. Life presents unexpected edges and that may become overwhelming if you are already ‘triple edged”

  • Ursula Mannix Dec 4, 2015, 7:30 am

    Excellent.

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