On growth discomfort vs warning discomfort

On growth discomfort vs warning discomfort

October 15, 2021


In this piece, I’ll talk about growth vs warning discomfort, some ways to that I distinguish between the two, and some personal examples.

Story time

A few months ago, early in my role as an engineering manager, someone asked me if I enjoyed being an EM. I had to admit that no, I was not enjoying it per se - yet. Don't get me wrong - I'm glad I made the transition from IC to EM. I find the role deeply rewarding and plan to stay on the EM path for the foreseeable future. But the reason that I wouldn't yet describe it as enjoyable at that time is that I spend much more of my time doing things that I don't yet consider myself good at and things that I may be good at but require a big chunks of energy.

However, I explained, I was also confident that the “not enjoying” state would be temporary. With practice and iteration, the things that require a lot of energy would slowly require less. Things that I find intimidating would become core skills. In effect, I was intentionally working through discomforts.

This might sound familiar to anyone who has picked up a sport before. I’m reminded of my first day of cross country practice in high school. I was exhausted after running a single mile. The idea of running a 5k/3.1 miles at all, not to mention competitively, seemed like a pipe dream. However, with consistent effort over time, my mind and body adjusted to the demands of the sport. What was once a distant goal became something that I did several times a week every week.

Back to the EM role. This sense of assurance that things would work out comes from reflecting on what kinds of discomfort I was experiencing. I’ve come to think of discomfort in two categories.

Growth discomfort

Growth discomfort shortens the distance between who you are and who you’d like to become. Keep going.

How this pertains to imposter syndrome is to acknowledge deep within myself that I am NOT an imposter. I am a leaner. And learning is part of the job.

Sources of growth discomfort for me over the past few months have been

  • Navigating performance and development reviews. This is a big one. I want to be as fair, consistent, and as unbiased as possible while also advocacing for my reports.
  • Publicly sharing writing. For the first few months of this blog’s existence, I had search engine indexing turned off 😅.
  • Things like On defining team growth strategy: An approach to building business cases for capacity that require looking farther ahead and at higher levels of abstraction than I'm used to.

Shifting mindsets

A recurring theme in my writing is creating space to make mistakes, own them, and learn from them. This is essential for growth and creativity. That said, it is easier to adopt that mindset for some endeavors than in others. So when faced with growth discomfort, remind yourself and allow yourself to shift into a growth mindset. Allow yourself to appreciate the process of learning as much as the results.

Allow yourself to see room for growth as opportunities to explore and not just problems to fix (unless they are actually problems to fix).

Warning discomfort

Warning discomfort, which is your body and/or mind telling you that you are heading in the wrong direction. Stop pushing.


A prime example of something to not ignore is physical pain. Repetitive strain injuries often start out as mild irritations; some soreness in the hands or forearms after a few hours at the keyboard, for example. Ignoring those early warnings does not make you stronger over time, doing so sets you on the path to have those pains go from acute to chronic.

That discomfort is warning to listen to your body and change course. Maybe you need to integrate hand stretches, exercises, and typing breaks into your daily routine. Maybe retraining your typing technique and investing in ergonomic equipment is in order. But you shouldn’t keep pushing until you are forced to stop.


In a previous reflection, On boundaries as the antibiotics of burnout , it turns out that I was actually thinking through ways of spotting warning discomfort and some tactics for dealing with it. One relevant excerpt,

In order to make sure that you have that energy reserve available to tap into, strive to be clear with yourself about when, why, and for how long you need to stretch yourself.

This themes show up again in On the limits of heroics, with

Feeling overwhelmed often does not stem from doing too little, but rather from trying to do too much. The solution often isn't to be a hero and power through, but rather to stop, audit what you are doing, and focus on the most important and urgent things first, and let everything else wait until the appropriate time.

Wrap up

It’s been a few months since that initial conversation about whether or not I enjoy the role. Where am I now? With patience for myself as I learn, perseverance through challenges and pacing for the long-term, it feels like I'm moving from trot to a run 🚶🏾‍♂️→ 🏃🏿‍♂️. And with that has come the license to enjoy the journey .

I'd like to leave you with a performance of a song about turning failure into triumph - Try, by Madison McFerrin. In addition to being a certifiable bop (especially her Colors performance), the song speaks to that internal dialog of facing down growth discomfort, taking a healthy attitude towards mistakes, and ultimately taking the leap to give it a try (whatever "it" may mean to you at the time).