How I discovered that what we truly seek is not a life of comfort but in fact quite the opposite: a life of meaningful discomfort.
One of life’s biggest traps is the fact that the best rewards come as second order effects of what is perceived as a negative experience.
There is no depth of connection without vulnerability.
There is no discovery without sailing to the unknown.
There are no great returns without great risks.
There is no confidence without courage.
There is no giving without giving away.
There is no creativity without courage.
There is no innovation without failure.
There is no growth without hardship.
There is no flow without challenge.
There is no high without the low.
Unless you go through discomfort you will never be able to unlock the best that life has to offer.
Being TOO comfortable is a thing.
I am grateful to be in a career path that I love, in my dream role (Product Management), working in a company that offers all the perks, super flex work times, unlimited days off, no deadlines and awesome fun people. My salary is more than enough to fund my -expensive- sport hobbies of skydiving, wakeboarding and snowboarding, my motorcycle, my frequent trips around Europe and my food splurges. I live in a cosy apartment, with everything that I need and then some more, making spare $ from Airbnb. I am lucky enough to have some awesome humans around me and plenty of time to pursue my side-projects and interests. I am lucky enough to have a very comfortable life atm.
Undoubtedly, I have been extremely lucky to be given all that. Nevertheless, a few months back I realised that I was hungry for more. But not for more tech gadgets, a Ducati or a bigger apartment; nor a promotion, more friends or more Twitter followers. I felt hungry for more adventures, the unknown, the novel; for harder problems and bigger challenges; higher mountains and deeper seas.
Why wasn’t I satisfied? I was lucky enough to be given so much… I kept asking myself: “Why isn’t this good enough? Why am I so restless? Why can’t I be content?”.
Self-actualisation & Discomfort
Months later, I stumbled upon this graph. And everything clicked…
You might recognise those as the infamous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which classifies human needs into discrete groups where the lowest needs are our fundamental needs that need to be fulfilled in order to move up towards the higher needs.
The epiphany though that the first graph gave me was that these needs actually fluctuate with time. What I realised is that as one develops as a human, their needs at the bottom of the pyramid subside one by one leaving self-actualisation as our primary need. In other words: the need for a fancier apartment, better food, more friends, more status and even belonging and connection(!) drop to a baseline, only to make room for the highest of needs: self-actualisation*:
- 😃Seeking Happiness (better: Εὐδαιμονία)
- 🎨Self-expression through creative pursuits (Τέχνη & flow)
- 🍼Caregiving & Love through Parenting
- Personal Growth
📚Seeking Wisdom/Virtue (Αρετή, Σοφία & Φρόνησης through Μελέτη)
🥋Mastery (Μαεστρία/Δεξιοτεχνία) by utilising skills & talents
- 🧘Seeking Peace/Freedom of Mind*
- 🌍Contribution to something greater that one’s self. Meaningful work.(Ikigai)*
The lower needs like food and shelter do NOT disappear ofcourse. They just become less important for the individual whose pursuit for fulfilling their needs is now turned inwards.
And just like that, I realised that while I was hungry for more, I was not hungry for more of what I had; I was simply maturing. I had moved to the right of that x-axis of personal development and with that, I was lucky enough to had hit the lower asymptotes of the ‘lower’ needs and transitioned to an intense search of self-actualisation.
My soul was seeking adventure for the sake of growth. My mind was seeking creativity in the pursuit of self-expression. My heart was searching for connection for the sake of contributing to the whole.
The peak of the pyramid; Self-Actualisation
Self actualisation involves the pursuit of uncovering a person’s full potential. It is characterised by a desire to accomplish everything that one can; to become the best version of themselves. This definition of the ‘best version’ of one’s self is extremely personal. It could be reaching the apex of one’s career, being the best parent they can, reaching a level of mastery in a creative pursuit or a combination of things.
This need of self-actualisation comes with an intrinsic motivation to just be more and do more in an attempt to uncover our full potential. It is a fire in your belly fuelled by a desire to move closer to who we want to become; that best version of ourselves.
Life does begin at the end of your comfort zone.
Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, believed that our mental health depends on “the natural tension between where we are and where we want to go”. In other words: we feel good when we are working towards a vision of who we want to become. We feel good when we are on the journey of self-actualisation.
As trivial as it sounds: if you want to move closer to that future vision of yourself, you have to start doing things that you don’t do today.
→ that, by definition, implies getting outside your comfort zone
→ and that, by definition again, involves discomfort
BUT paradoxically, it is in ‘meaningful discomfort’ that we thrive in; not in comfort**.
As we explained, the pursuit of becoming this best version of yourself is the state in which people thrive in. We also showed that one cannot embark on such a journey by avoiding discomfort. Meaningful problems and worthy challenges are the bread and butter of a good life because, though uncomfortable, they push you outside your comfort zone and that process is the gateway to self-actualisation.
You can call that pain, suffering, hard work, blood sweat & tears, hustling, busting your ass.. It is all the same thing.
The gateway to self-actualisation is singular: discomfort.
“Sophisticated foods are bittersweet (wine, beer, coffee, chocolate). Addictive relationships are cooperative and competitive. Work becomes flow at the limits of ability. The flavor of life is on the edge.” — Naval Ravikant
We were hardwired to chase comfort
Previous generations, and in fact our current culture is not mature enough to really get this.
For years, humans lived in societies where you had to fight for some sort of basic comfort. The lower needs were not satisfied and they had to work to even be able to satisfy those. A house, education for their kids or even food on the table.
Of course one cannot chase higher level needs without having the basic needs sorted out on some level. But the more society evolves and the more we evolve, those lower level needs become less of a luxury and more of a default. As society evolves in that way, we need to change our mindset from one chasing maximum comfort to one seeking meaningful discomfort instead.
“The most common addiction in the world is the draw of comfort. It wrecks dreams and breaks people.” — David Cain
Finding the balance.
Joseph Campbell described what he called the Hero’s Journey:
Notice how the hero crosses from the light to darkness when they depart (3) and how they return (9). I think of this as the equivalent of getting outside your comfort zone, embarking on an adventure and then returning back enriched.
Prolonged periods of discomfort are a recipe for burnout while prolonged periods of comfort are a recipe for dread and regret.
A life of no comfort (read: hustle-porn) is definitely NOT what one should strive for. Notice how this is a cycle from the light to the darkness and back to the light. A life of no comfort is not the route to self-actualisation. Comfort is much needed in order to refuel, zoom out and evaluate our direction.
The trick is finding the balance between periods of comfort and discomfort. The rhythm of our life is defined by these cycles of comfort and discomfort.
What we need…
Life is fulfilling when in motion.
What we need is not a life of comfort but a life filled with problems worth solving, things worth suffering for, people worth fighting for and pain worth enduring.
It is not laying on an island sipping on coconuts nor smooth sailing that we seek. It is big waves and wild storms that our soul will forever be in search of.
How long will you put off what you are capable of doing just to continue what you are comfortable doing?
*Before dying, Abraham Maslow was looking into adding another layer at the top of the needs pyramid: self-transcendence. According to his latest theory, he believed that humans can find theur fullest realization when giving oneself to something beyond oneself — for example, in altruism or spirituality. While that was already encapsulated in his definition of self-actualisation, he believed that service to something higher deserved to be split and put at the top of the pyramid.
**We think that a happy life is one of the highest achievements. Yet ancient greeks believed that a happy life is not what a good life looks like. The highest state one could thrive to achieve was eudaimonia. In our definition of happiness, discomfort has no place. We learn that happiness is an overall positive experience. BUT eudaimonia is a state in which people can be in discomfort but at the same time be extremely blissful.
📖 Man’s Search for Meaning | Viktor Frankl
📖 The Hero with A Thousand Faces | Joseph Campbell
💡 Hierarchy of Needs | Abraham Maslow
📖 The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck | Mark Manson
⌨️ Humans Cannot Survive Alone | Scott Galloway
📜 Ithaka | CP Cavafy
📜 Greek Philosophy | Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Virtue Theory (…)