We all want to be comfortable; we want to feel secure, cozy, protected, and liked. It’s nice for the world to give us a big hug every day and tell us we are doing a good job. However, this comfort that we seek can easily become stasis, which is the lethal enemy of innovation, progress, and advancement in both our personal and professional lives.
I feel qualified to anecdotally make this assessment because my life has changed significantly and rapidly this year and I still haven’t reached the point of comfort that I used to be in. As I reflect on this fact, I’m reminded of Sanford’s theory of Challenge and Support and the concept of “optimal dissonance”. As you very well may recall, if an environment is too challenging, students may retreat, regress, or ignore the challenge. If it is not challenging enough, students feel safe and comfortable, but don’t develop. This theory obviously does not apply to only students; in fact, I think that the concepts of challenge and support and optimal dissonance play an important role in all of our lives.
This theory is one that we should think seriously about when we consider our work as student affairs professionals. Not only is it a theory I draw on all the time when I am working with students, but it provides an excellent lens through which to consider our day to day work and the way we function within our organizations. We know that it is vital to students’ development to provide them with challenges, and we must do the same for ourselves and our colleagues so that our quality and scope of work does not become stagnant.
It’s okay to be uncomfortable; in fact, it’s more than okay, it’s desirable for each of us to dabble in dissonance so we can continue to progress toward our best selves. As a new professional, I realize that I offer a set of “fresh eyes” to my organization. This is partly due to my newness in the field, my youth, and my experiences elsewhere, but can also be accounted for by the fact that I am still finding my footing. My discomfort means that I must continually ask important questions, challenge assumptions, and offer different perspectives by virtue of my learning process. And I think that these actions are beneficial to me and also to my organization. The friction and tension that new professionals often experience in a new organizational setting are symptoms of navigating discomfort.
Discomfort and dissonance should not just be the forte of the new or inexperienced, though. In order to provide space for innovation and progress, to challenge the status quo, it is important for us to consciously make ourselves uncomfortable as professionals. We must take the one extra step into uncharted territory so we can begin to apply our talents and experiences to chart a new course.
So if you find yourself getting too comfortable, realize that you’re just dulling your senses and missing out on the opportunity to be in front of whatever is coming around the corner next. Seek out the dissonance, heighten your senses, explore beyond yourself, and find optimal dissonance.
How do you try to embrace challenges to provide growth in your personal and professional life?