Tap the power of discomfort

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

Here in Colorado, we enjoy the majestic beauty of mountains all around, including more than 50 peaks that jut into the sky to more than 14,000 feet in elevation. Many people, including myself, consider it a gift to climb these “14ers.”

I didn’t always enjoy climbing, though. In fact, until about 10 years ago, I was terrified of heights. I decided, though, it was time for a new challenge and recruited my experienced older brother to take me and my now-husband on a journey up Wetterhorn Peak.

The physical demands tested us. But after a few hours, we reached the summit. While climbing the most exposed section, I’d faced the mountainside. So the harrowing height hadn’t sunk in — until it was time to come down. As I looked over the edge, I froze. All I could see was the steep vertical drop in front of me. I shook as tears stung my face. The others encouraged me on, but I couldn’t envision how to start, let alone make my way down.

Then a thought popped into my head: “Staying up here is not an option.” In that moment, I realized the summit I clung to for comfort was actually a death trap. With the threat of afternoon lighting storms, we had to head down.
I pulled in a deep breath and wiped away my tears. I placed one foot over the edge, then a hand, then another. Slowly, I made my way down the mountain.

As cliché is it sounds, Wetterhorn Peak changed me. New possibilities motivated me to make some hard choices, pivot in my career and improve my overall well-being.
My experience wasn’t unique. Story after story demonstrate how physical challenges have the power to transform our lives.

Moreover, it’s possible to harness this power to maximize employee potential and improve organizations.

First, we can acknowledge that for many of us, the modern world has robbed us of opportunities to become uncomfortable. Whether it’s thermostats that ensure our indoor spaces remain a cozy 72 degrees year-round, comfortable cars that move us places with a slight push of a peddle or our nearly instant access to food, we don’t suffer much to survive.

While I’m not advocating for a time machine to take us back to Neanderthal days, I’m suggesting it’s important to recognize how eradicating discomfort also has reduced our emotional resilience, blunted our mental toughness and perpetuated numerous lifestyle-related diseases that are largely preventable. Without embracing a level of discomfort, we don’t reach our potential.

With that understanding in mind, we can choose to engage in physical exercise to practice embracing discomfort. Pushing our physical limits trains our brains to endure rather than avoid hard things. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg summarizes research showing people who start exercising also tend to adopt healthier eating habits, manage stress more effectively and become more productive at work. According to the results of a study published in the journal Psychology and Aging, adults who added exercise to their routines improved concentration, creativity, learning speed, memory, mental stamina and resilience to stress. These findings support Duhigg’s characterization of exercise as a “keystone habit” — a single behavior producing positive ripple effects in other areas of our lives.

Finally, we can promote exercise in our workplaces as a sound business strategy. A 2008 study detailed in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management revealed on days employees exercised during work hours, employee performance was significantly higher, co-worker interactions more positive and time management improved compared to non-exercise days. These results suggest it makes sound business sense to provide employees with opportunities to exercise during the work day. Some companies, like Clif Bar, even offer 30 minutes of paid time for employees to exercise.

Other ideas for promoting exercise include sponsoring such challenges as a couch-to-5K, offering onsite exercise classes, hosting group hikes and subsidizing coaching to support individual goal-setting. Whatever you choose, it’s important to encourage team members to engage in activities challenging enough to induce discomfort, but doable enough to achieve small wins and eventually mastery.

While you might not lead your entire workforce on a climb up Wetterhorn Peak anytime soon, consider the ways you can help your team members embrace physical challenges to help them discover new possibilities. By unlocking their greater potential, you’ll undoubtedly unleash unprecedented business success.