Have you ever found yourself wanting to improve yourself or your skills in some way, but unable to make meaningful progress? Even though you know exactly what you need to do to improve?
Like maybe you want to be a better sight-reader, and know that you ought to read through more music with friends, but keep making excuses or avoid the uncomfortable situations that would involve sight-reading?
Or maybe you’d like to become more comfortable with public speaking, and know that it would help to participate in a local Toastmasters group, but feel really awkward when attending meetings and participating?
The big challenge of personal growth
Whether we ourselves are trying to grow in some way – or trying to help our students improve in some area – it’s pretty common to run into a lot of internal resistance.
Because the fundamental challenge with personal growth, is that it’s really hard to know if we’re actually growing or not in the moment.
Like, when you’re reading through quartets with friends and quietly freaking out about having lost count of the rests and trying to figure out if you missed your entrance or not, how do you know if you’re getting better or not? Because in the immediate present, it just feels super uncomfortable and awkward, right?
There’s no way to know if experiences like this are helping you become a more effective sight-reader until days, weeks, or months later.
In other words, to quote the researchers whose work we’ll look at today, “the benefits are delayed and the costs are immediate.”1
The need for progress feedback
And the problem with delayed benefits, is that we do need “progress feedback” or some indication that we’re making progress towards our goals, in order to have the motivation we need to keep putting ourselves in these uncomfortable situations.
So…is there anything we can do to stay motivated and persevere through the uncomfortable growth challenges that we must face on the path towards awesomeness?
So…progress feedback is usually something positive that lets us know we are headed in the right direction. But these researchers wondered…could discomfort be used too?
Like, in the absence of any clear indication as to whether you’re growing or not, could the experience of discomfort itself be used as a sign that you are indeed making progress towards your goal, and increase your motivation to continue?
What backwards bizarro-ness is this you ask? Well, let’s take a closer look…
An improv study
A pair of researchers (Woolley & Fishbach, 2022) recruited 557 participants in 55 introductory-level improvisation classes at The Second City Training Center in Chicago to take part in a videotaped improv exercise.
The exercise was called “Give Focus,” and sounds a little like freeze tag, sort of. Basically, one person in each group “has focus” and gets to move around the room and make any physical movements they would like to, for however long as they want, while everyone else stays frozen. When the “has focus” person would like to pass that role to someone else, they do so by communicating this non-verbally (e.g. by pointing or nodding at someone), at which point they freeze, and the new “has focus” person is free to move around the room however they’d like.
Before the exercise began, each class was divided into smaller subgroups of 3-7 participants, each of which was assigned to either a control condition or a “seeking discomfort” condition.
The control groups were asked to pay attention to whether the exercise was working (i.e. “While you play, see if the exercise is working.”) or whether they felt they were developing new skills and improving (i.e. “Your goal for the next exercise is to feel yourself developing new skills. Developing new skills is a sign that the exercise is working. In the next game, your goal is to push yourself to develop new skills and feel yourself improving.”).
On the other hand, the “seeking discomfort” participants were asked to focus more on doing things outside their comfort zone that made them feel awkward and uncomfortable (i.e. “Your goal for the next exercise is to feel awkward and uncomfortable. Feeling uncomfortable is a sign that the exercise is working. In the next game, your goal is to push past your comfort zone and put yourself in situations that make you feel awkward and uncomfortable.”).
Would there be any measurable differences in how they approached the exercise, or how they felt about the experience afterwards?
Persistence, risk-taking, and perceived achievement
To find out, independent coders were asked to watch the videos and evaluate participants’ a) persistence (the total number of seconds they held onto the focus role) and b) risk-taking (where 1 = no risks; the student with focus is walking around like normal; 4 = some risks; the student is pushing the boundaries somewhat, for example, walking very fast or very slow or moving arms around; 7 = many risks; for example, the student is pushing the boundaries and doing something extremely out of the ordinary or going out on a limb.).
And as the researchers suspected, participants who were encouraged to actively seek out discomfort did indeed spend more time holding onto focus. Anywhere from 1.41 seconds to 6.22 seconds longer on average, in each 3-minute exercise.
These “seeking discomfort” participants were also more likely to take risks than those in the control group.
And the “seeking discomfort” participants also seemed to feel like they accomplished more in the exercise than those who weren’t encouraged to do things that felt uncomfortable.
The researchers didn’t do this for all of the classes, but participants in one set of classes were asked to write down their goals for taking the improv class, and wrote down things like “improve communication skills” or “be more comfortable in front of others.” When asked to rate to what degree they felt they accomplished this goal afterwards, the “seeking discomfort” participants rated their sense of achievement as a 3.52, compared to 2.68 for the control participants (on a 0-6 scale, where 0=not at all, and 6=very much).
So what can we take away from this?
This study made me think of what it’s like to exercise. Like, if you go to the gym and a workout feels easy, you probably don’t feel as good about it as a workout that feels more challenging and physically uncomfortable in the moment (but always in a good “feel the burn” sort of way, rather than in an “injury-waiting-to-happen” sort of way).
So in the same way that we learn to embrace and enjoy a healthy dose of challenge when working out, maybe it could be gratifying and motivating to do so in other areas of our life in which we would like to grow as well.
That said, I think it’s important to note that participants in this exercise had the ability to choose their “dosage” of discomfort. They didn’t have control over whether they were “it” or not, but they did have control over how far outside their comfort zone they went and how long they chose to stay there.
For instance, they could engage in very “safe” movements if they wanted, or experiment with more unusual movements if they were feeling a little more courageous. And they could easily pass the focus on to someone else immediately, or hold on longer if they were comfortable doing so. In other words, it’s not like they were thrown on stage, with the spotlight on them alone, with no option to leave or escape the spotlight for a fixed period of time.
So whether it’s becoming more comfortable onstage, developing your sight-reading skills, or mastering the art of small talk, see what happens if you make discomfort itself the goal – while still giving yourself permission to choose your own discomfort “dosage.”
Like sight-reading duos with a really good friend before sight-reading quartets with strangers. Or picking things to sight-read that are just outside your comfort level rather than things with 5 sharps and 2+ ledger lines.
Where your goal is not just to sight read effectively, but to feel awkward and uncomfortable too!
Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2022). Motivating Personal Growth by Seeking Discomfort. Psychological Science, 33(4), 510–523. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211044685