In his autobiography, Jim Whittaker, a renowned mountaineer and the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, wrote, “I believe the key to a life well lived… is discomfort.”
Whittaker saw discomfort as a way to stretch “yourself beyond what you already know or know how to do.” We all experience pain when we twist an ankle or touch scalding water. But ‘discomfort’ represents an altogether different experience, one that offers the promise of personal growth and character development.
I took Whittaker’s message to heart this summer when I cycled for 46 days and 1,500 miles around Iceland connected to my ten-year old son on a trailer cycle and my four-year old daughter in a bike trailer. Sometimes the headwind was so strong that we struggled simply to maintain forward momentum. On the days when the temperature dropped into the 40’s F and rain soaked us through, my son and I shivered, despite layers of clothing, and pedaled harder to stay warm (my daughter was comfortable and dry in her trailer). I told my son, “This ride was supposed to be hard. Sometimes an adventurer just suffers for a while.”
The value of discomfort comes from the context in which it is experienced. It was precisely in those moments of discomfort during the ride that I most deeply appreciated the simple joys of life: a meal shared with people I love, soaking in hot water, snuggling up to read to my kids in bed. The suffering made the pleasure, when I finally experienced it, so much better! And, to Whittaker’s point, handling the discomfort was really a lesson in perseverance for my children and me. While my instincts as a father – rightly so – are to protect my kids, I think that a parent shouldn’t make a child’s life too easy. I wanted them to internalize one of the most satisfying experiences in life: overcoming hardship through effort and focus.
Discomfort is not only physical, but may also come in the form of emotional resistance to making a needed change in our lives. I have met people who would like to unshackle themselves from their desks, from unbalanced lives, or unhealthy work environments. Some are looking for opportunities to express parts of themselves that they do not utilize at work, or follow a direction that is more aligned with their true interests rather than, as one friend put it, “continue to unconsciously participate in the herd.” But many people remain stuck, often because they are intimidated by the consequences of taking action and the discomfort that comes with change.
Organizations are emerging that recognize this issue. I recently spoke at a well-attended event in New York City organized by a group called Meet Plan Go. The event encouraged people to take a “career break” to travel the world “and have it be beneficial to your career.” The room was filled with hundreds of people interested in taking a sabbatical from work. Some were dissatisfied with their jobs, felt that something was amiss, and wanted to take initiative to radically change their life direction. Others wanted to volunteer abroad or simply to learn about foreign cultures, then return to their professions rejuvenated.
I told the audience about enlightened employers like Intel Corporation , where I worked for fourteen years, that provide full-time employees a paid two-month sabbatical every seven years. One of my fellow speakers, Rita Foley, co-author of Reboot Your Life, conducted interviews with hundreds of people who had taken a career break to travel. She said that, “We could not find a single person who had regretted the decision.”
When my son and I give presentations about our ride through Iceland, we always finish by saying, “So what are you waiting for? Go out and create your own adventure!” We could just as easily add Whittaker’s advice: embrace the value of discomfort.
Charles Scott is an endurance athlete and family adventurer. He spent 14 years working at Intel Corporation before deciding to focus his energy full-time on writing, speaking and doing endurance challenges with his family linked to environmental causes. While working at Intel, he competed in five Ironman triathlons, eight marathons and many multi-sport and adventure races. In the summer of 2009, he and his eight-year old son Sho rode connected bicycles the length of mainland Japan, covering 2,500 miles in 67 days. They were named “Climate Heroes” by the United Nations as they raised money for a global tree planting campaign. And in the summer of 2011, he cycled 1,500 miles around Iceland on connected bicycles with his ten-year old son and four-year old daughter, once again sponsored by the UN as "Climate Heroes": www.icelandbikeadventure.com. Charles is writing a book about the Japan ride called Rising Son. If you would like to receive a free excerpt and receive updates on his latest writings, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.