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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Petty

012 How to Harness the Winds of Discomfort to Get Where You Want to Go

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

Becoming a Seasoned Sailor On the Seas of Life


What do you do when life gets uncomfortable?

Discomfort’s not going away this side of the grave. So we’d better get used to it.

Even better, on today’s episode, you’ll learn how to USE discomfort to become the person you were MADE to be and live the life you were MADE to live.

It Was a Tough Week

I was uncomfortable a LOT this past week. My last episode featured Joe Harsel, a friend and mentor who actually died for 30 minutes 3 years ago after experiencing sudden cardiac death, then remarkably came back to life for no apparent reason. As I said in that episode, that sudden cardiac death scenario is literally my worst nightmare--the scenario that can trigger intense anxiety in me. So it was a pretty big exercise in facing my fears to have that conversation with Joe. So glad we did, BTW--what a story, and so many important lessons for all of us from his experience.

Then, for several days last week, I had weird sensations in my chest that I couldn’t ignore and couldn’t explain. Anxiety began to have its way, and I was mentally and emotionally compromised for the entire day on Friday. Just ask my wife--she’ll tell you.

I finally went to the doctor--and emerged with nothing conclusive. I had to begin practicing what Joe talked about--embracing the mystery and uncertainty of life.

It was a lot of weight on the bar for me, and it didn’t feel great lifting it.

Slowly but surely, though, over the years I’ve been upgrading my relationship with Discomfort. As much as the discomfort of the last week was, well, uncomfortable and honestly, unwanted, I know that it can make me stronger, more resilient, and more prepared for life’s future challenges if I lean into it, harness it, and use it.

What Causes You Discomfort?

I want to pause here for a moment. Anxiety is a consistent source of Discomfort for me. Take a moment to think of one of the most common sources of Discomfort in your life. Call it by name, and keep it in mind throughout the rest of this episode.

Alright. Let’s keep moving.

A Metaphor To Make the Point

I spent two years during middle school in Southern CA in an amazing little beachside community. One of the most exciting things we did as a family during those two years was sail from Long Beach harbor to Catalina Island, one of California’s Channel Islands and a popular tourist destination since the 1920s, when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. began developing it. My mom, sister, and I were all new to sailing. My dad was the most seasoned sailor among us, with a newly-minted captain’s license as proof. It turns out, sailing is a treasure trove of metaphors for life. Here’s one of them.

Assuming the vessel itself is seaworthy, a sailboat needs a couple of things in order to serve its purpose: the forces of wind and water. These forces are essential, not optional. Without them, you’re not sailing; you’re just sitting on a boat. The fastest “point of sail”--i.e. the direction you’re sailing relative to the direction of the wind--is called a beam reach. On a beam reach, you’re sailing perpendicular to the wind, or across it. Often, a beam reach is the most direct way to get from point A to point B. It’s also the fastest point of sail. Simple enough, right?

The funny thing about a beam reach, though, is that it can make for especially rough sailing. The force of the wind blowing across the boat causes the boat to lean over (“heel over”) as the sails catch the wind and convert it into forward motion. The pulleys and cables and other rigging components pop and groan. The sails are stretched taut. The boat travels across the waves, so the bow digs into them, and spray flies across the deck. It’s wet, windy, and noisy.

Same Conditions...Very Different Experiences

As a rookie sailor, I remember the beam reach as an uncomfortable, stressful experience. It didn’t feel okay. Could the boat and the rigging take that kind of stress and strain? Would the boat flip over? Was it really necessary to stay on that point of sail? Why weren't we doing everything we could to make it a more relaxed and peaceful ride?

A more seasoned sailor on the same beam reach, though, says, “We’re good! In fact, we’re better than good. This is the best way to sail to get where we’re going. And this is exactly what this boat is built for.” He might trim the sails a bit and adjust the point of sail a smidge to optimize efficiency, but the seasoned sailor knows that this is precisely how we need to sail to get where we’re going. He sees the wind and water as allies, not threats--necessary forces to get him where he wants to go.

Same forces of wind and water, same point of sail, same behavior of the boat in response to those forces--but two very different perspectives and experiences.

An Easier Way?

There IS a much more relaxing point of sail: "Downwind” keeps the wind at your back. The boat runs with the wind and waves instead of contrary to them. The ride is quiet and smooth and doesn’t require much of the sailor. It isn’t often, however, that your destination and the direction of the wind match so that you can run downwind all the way.

As in sailing, so in life.

Rarely (if ever?) do the forces in our lives--family, work, health, our own internal challenges, etc.--array themselves behind us and propel us on a relaxing “downwind” run toward our destination. Much more often, we find ourselves on a beam reach, sailing across the wind and into the waves, all of our physical, mental, and emotional rigging absorbing life’s forces in an effort to convert them into forward motion.

The Choice is Yours

Some moments, on some days, I’m a rookie sailor on the seas of life, fretting about this and that and worried that my ship will flip over or I don’t have what it takes to maintain the beam reach I’m being called upon to sail. On those days, I just want to turn downwind, to relieve the pressure on my rigging and have some peace and quiet. On other days, in other ways, I’m more of a seasoned sailor--monitoring the wind and waves, trimming the sails and adjusting my course to sail a solid beam reach. On those days, the stress and strain of life produce more exhilaration than anxiety. I take the helm with greater gusto and determination and welcome the forces swirling around me as good and necessary to get where I want to go. The wind and the waves and the spray remind me that I’m alive--ALIVE--and I’m fortunate to be the captain of my own vessel on the wild voyage of life.

I go back and forth, and I think that’s pretty normal. But on the whole, if you graphed my overall trend through the ups and downs, I think I can honestly say that I’m becoming a more seasoned sailor. Some of that, at 46, I attribute simply to the passage of time. More of it, though, I attribute to the conscious choice I’ve made to become a seasoned sailor.

Because we really do have a choice, don’t we?

If we agree that the forces life exerts upon us are constant--only varying in intensity--and the way forward involves getting better at harnessing them rather than avoiding them, then intentionally striving to become a more seasoned sailor is the best choice. In the moment, it might feel better and relieve some pressure, but if we make a habit of turning downwind whenever life’s winds blow, we get incrementally off-course. Incremental course deviations over time compound into major waywardness over the years. Trim your sails. Stay the course. Put in the time. Do the work. The seasoning will come.

Seasoned Sailors Know When to Seek Shelter in the Harbor

It’s worth noting that there are times when it is best to let down the sails, take shelter in the harbor, take on provisions, tend to repairs, and rest. There are also times when it’s wise to seek refuge because the wind and waves threaten to overwhelm you. Take a break. Sleep. Go on a vacation. Seek the counsel of a good friend, a coach, a counselor, a trusted spiritual advisor. Hike, walk, run, paint, read, refresh yourself. Part of becoming a more seasoned sailor is knowing when it's time to head into the harbor.

Then, again, as in sailing, so in life: After time at anchor in the harbor, after you’ve re-provisioned or the storm has passed, set your sails and get back out on the wild, uncertain, and (dare I say it?) exhilarating seas of life.

There’s no sailing without the forces of wind and water. And there’s no meaningful progress in life without discomfort.

Life’s Greatest Source of Discomfort: What Will You Do With It?

Know what can be especially uncomfortable? Our Mortality. What are you going to do with that discomfort?

My challenge to you is to let the pressure of your Mortality fill your sails with motivation to live with even more guts and gusto and abandon NOW so that when the ship of your life lands on that distant shore, you’ll be proud of your voyage.

If you’re uncomfortable, good; get used to it!

A Challenge

Which sailor are you today--the rookie or the seasoned sailor? Which one are you becoming? Commit today to becoming a seasoned sailor by upgrading your relationship to life’s many Discomforts and harnessing their power to get you where you’re capable of going.

These Guys Have Helped Me a Lot: Check ‘Em Out

Two people have had an out-sized influence on my relationship with Discomfort, and I want to thank them here and recommend their work to you. I first heard legendary Navy SEAL, Jocko Willink, say “If you’re uncomfortable, good!” And Ozan Varol, in his book Think Like a Rocket Scientist, has a fantastic section on the importance of embracing Uncertainty--an especially challenging form of Discomfort. (I’m sure the rest of the book is good, too--I just haven’t finished it yet!)

Let’s Sail Together: Get Where You Want To Go

My purpose as a coach is to help you discover, enjoy, and deploy your unique purpose in the world. Connect with me on Facebook or learn more at I'll help you create the life you know you were made to live.

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