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Why We Thrive in Discomfort: The Ugly Font and The Awkward Stranger

Unlike Mondays, Januarys allow us to hit a more likeable reset button. The January of my sophomore year of college was a January where I particularly needed to hit refresh. I desperately wanted to reload my attitude on motivation. It wasn't even spring yet but I knew I needed to do some cleaning. My recently acquired affinity for the bubbly So Jennie in my hand and the illusion that I had all the time in the world had had me feeling inspired. With nothing on the agenda for my fourteen-hour flight, I gleefully readjusted my reading on the armrest, loaded the screen and popped up the footrest. After a lot of toggling, I settled on a talk by Tim Harford on frustration and discomfort. As an economist, journalist and broadcaster, I felt like he could teach me a thing or two about getting stuff done and embracing discomfort.

I’ve been thinking about discomfort a lot lately - mostly my urge to accomplish things but shirking away at the first sign of it. I used to think that I could get my hands dirty. Get right in mud and wiggle my way through the wires and all the obstacles that would come my way. But as my to-do list gets longer and the more I'm faced with challenges, the less inclined I feel to tackle them. I've realized that I keep dressing for success but when it comes to doing the grimy work - I don't. My biggest concern is perhaps that my go-getter attitude is completely being masked by the urge to do - well, nothing - and go take a nap instead. Do I get lazy? Yes. Do I still know how to work hard? Most definitely. So what was it that was keeping me from remaining perseverant?

Harford’s TED talk helped offer some clarity. He begins with an anecdote about a young girl and a pianist. To the girl’s dismay, the pianist initially refuses to play a concert where the only available instrument is an unplayable piano. After much convincing and some excellent PR skills on the girl’s part, he agrees and goes on to perform the best selling solo-jazz album in history. Keith Jarrett, the pianist, had been handed a mess. He embraced that mess, and it soared. Simply put, Harford’s talk suggests that when we don’t feel like something’s helping us – we resist. I resist actively working through math problems and jump to Symbolab. Does this help me? No. Do we all do it? Yes. Cutting corners has become second nature. But what Harford says is that just because you don’t like something, doesn’t mean its not helping you. Now what really got me thinking were his other little anecdotes about the ugly fonts and the awkward stranger.

“We’ve actually known for a while that certain kinds of difficulty, certain kinds of obstacle, can actually improve our performance. For example, the psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer, a few years ago, teamed up with high school teachers. And he asked them to reformat the handouts that they were giving to some of their classes. So the regular handout would be formatted in something straightforward, such as Helvetica or Times New Roman. But half these classes were getting handouts that were formatted in something sort of intense, like Haettenschweiler, or something with a zesty bounce, like Comic Sans italicized. Now, these are really ugly fonts, and they’re difficult fonts to read. But at the end of the semester, students were given exams, and the students who’d been asked to read the more difficult fonts, had actually done better on their exams, in a variety of subjects. And the reason is, the difficult font had slowed them down, forced them to work a bit harder, to think a bit more about what they were reading, to interpret it … and so they learned more.”

Similarly, when three friends and a stranger were given the task of solving a murder mystery problem as a social experiment, they excelled in it with a twenty-five percent chance of doing better. It was the disruptions that helped them do better. The awkwardness that made them pause, think and try harder. So essentially, Harford really nails in the fact that the more unpleasant a task is, the more it allows us to grow. Think about that task you have on your to-do list - the one that never really gets checked off. Day after day, week after week it is simply reassigned its seat on the lower ranks of your list - waiting, begging to be checked off. But it never really is. And a part of you most definitely knows that it may never be. Right now that task for me is making my yearly budget. It never really gets done because it makes me uncomfortable. I’m scared to see how much money I’m spending – the college student equivalent of avoiding reading that credit card bill. And yet it must urgently be done (sorry dad!).

Depending on how pressing the issue is, this feeling ranges from discomfort to fear. While I feel uncomfortable looking at my bank statements, I am genuinely scared of taking notes for certain classes. It is a gripping, chill inducing fear. Last semester it was a computer science class, and the code did in fact look like a foreign language. Rationalizing this sensation was coming to terms with the fear of the unknown. The future, how I am convinced that I can’t figure out the code no matter how long I stare at it and the grades that may result as an outcome of this. To then do the unpleasant thing anyway is an odd sensation. We despise it while we do it and even after, the pride is mixed with the urge to stray as far away from it as possible. In these times, it is our duty to handle these fears with kindness. We owe it to ourselves to do the uncomfortable thing, the scary thing. Whatever bothers you the most. For me, overcoming this fear translated into pursuing a minor in computer science. For you it may look like something else. Whatever it is – trust that that icky ‘I really don’t want to do this feeling’ is helping you – see what it might bring you.

Cover photo courtesy


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