I visited with a senior leader from a Fortune 100 company last month. At one point, he said, “My dad used to say, ‘Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.’” While I was amused by his simple characterization, it dawned on me that this glib little insight contains the essence of why some people are better decision makers than others – the judgment that comes through discomfort.
The hard truth is that many of us spend a great deal of time and treasure trying to avoid anything will cause stress. In the end though, we still end up dealing with it. Ever stew over confronting someone? The longer you avoid it, the more discomfort you feel. Ever put off trying something new because you’re afraid you might fail? Then after all that wasted time and energy, you find out it wasn’t that hard. There are countless circumstances like these.
When we are faced with an uncomfortable situation, our brain increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. In turn, we feel discomfort. For physical safety, this is a good thing. But if the discomfort is due to our perception of an uncertain situation, it can cause us to stop thinking rationally. We hesitate, worry, and procrastinate even if there is no real threat. When asked or expected to make a decision, many of us resort to doing nothing or making a safe decision rather than the one that might be most productive. Only after having dealt with the situation are we able to learn from it. By facing down emotional discomfort, we grow in our ability to make good decisions. Think about it – Have you ever grown without feeling discomfort?
So how do you learn to live with and manage discomfort? It comes down to attitude and perspective. I’ve got a good friend named Brian. He’s a retired police officer, firefighter, paramedic, ice climber, Everest climber and hang-glider. Now in his sixties, he’s into serious mountain biking. As you might imagine, he’s got a keen sense of judgment. I asked him one time where all this came from. After all, he’s just not your average Joe. “It was incremental,” he said. “When I was young, I tried one thing that was a little outside my comfort zone. When I learned that, I tried something that stretched me a little more. After a while, my perspective about discomfort changed. I realized that even in activities others considered dangerous, proper preparation and perspective allowed them to become calculated risks.”
While Brian’s risks might have been physical, the biggest obstacle to moving forward was emotional. It was not a case of ability. It was a case of volition. Would he or wouldn’t he? The same thing is true of any uncertain situation. The more benefit we attach to learning from discomfort, the more we begin to perceive this belief system as an asset to protect.