Discomfort & Success

Why success only follows failure and discomfort.


Sarah McMahon

2 years ago | 4 min read

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

Before I met Mike, I used dating apps intermittently. There were time consuming and overwhelming, but they also enabled me to meet people I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. One thing men always asked me was, “What do you do for fun?” My answer was always the same: I run and I write. Those are my hobbies. Those are my primary interests, and they consume a lot of my free time. When I set out to do something, I want to do it well, so I’ve constructed a life that allows me the time and freedom to pursue my hobbies passionately. I was looking for someone with an equal passion about something. Some of the men I dated admired my passion. Some didn’t understand. Some had passions of their own that made the balancing act of dating both interesting and difficult. My point is that I was looking for someone uncommon, because my lifestyle is intentionally uncomfortable in small ways. I had to find someone willing to embrace those discomforts.

One guy in particular asked me to go to a club one Friday.

“No,” I said, “I need to go to bed early because I’m training early Saturday morning.”

“I’m sorry, that’s lame,” was his disappointing response.

It’s easy to go to clubs. It’s easy to get drunk. It’s easy to ask a girl to go to a club. It’s harder, and a bit more interesting, to go on a first date in the daytime, stone cold sober. It’s easy to waste time, to do what everyone expects you to do so that your life is frictionless and free of inspection. It’s uncomfortable and awkward to be different, and it’s a lot harder to forge your own path than it is to walk the same path that thousands have walked before you.

You don’t have to go crazy to make yourself uncomfortable, either. The first time I cold-called someone was during a college internship at an automotive insurance agency where I had to wear business clothes, cover my tattoos, and sit in a grey cubicle as my summer slowly slipped away. That cold call was uncomfortable and awkward and terrible. I hated it, but as the summer wore on, I got better at calling. I also knew that I could never work at an insurance agency and I also knew I shouldn’t work in offices, but I digress. The takeaway is that the more I did an uncomfortable thing, the easier it got.

The first few jobs I had after I graduated from college were in the nonprofit sector. I didn’t make much, and I struggled for a while to pay my bills, save, and still have money to do stuff. I lived with my ex in a too-small apartment in Chicago. I lived with three different roommates, all of whom brought unique challenges. I dog sat and did freelance projects to pay off medical bills. The discomfort of not having enough taught me to work that much harder.

There is something really important and necessary about embracing discomfort, awkwardness, and fear in order to become successful. There is a famous anecdote from the art world that explains the need for discomfort (and failure) perfectly. A professor at an art school tells half of his ceramics class that they would be graded on the quantity of the work they produced. The other half would be graded on the quality of their finest piece. You might think the group who were graded on their finest piece outperformed the group graded on quantity, but that’s not what happened.

The quantity group worked to produce a lot and therefore learned from their mistakes. The quality group, however, were obsessed with perfection and ended up frustrated because they never allowed themselves to learn from their mistakes. Embracing discomfort will only lead to success if you simultaneously embrace the messy, frustrating process of practicing.

Discomfort doesn’t just lead to success, but it leads to happiness, too. Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes said, “Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure. We get in a car, we get in an elevator, it all comes easy. What I’ve found is that I’m never more alive than when I’m pushing and I’m in pain, and I’m struggling for high achievement, and in that struggle I think there’s a magic.”

There’s magic in struggle because we learn either way. If we fail, we learn what we did wrong. If we succeed, we learn we’re far stronger and more capable than we thought. And if we never try, the only lesson we learn is that we were never brave enough to start.

P.S. Read about how to embrace discomfort here, watch David Goggins explain the correlation between discomfort and success here, or read The Up Side of Down: Why Failing is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle.


Sarah Rose


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Sarah McMahon

Sales Professional | Poet | Freelancer |Blogger IG: @mcmountain email:







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