Lean into Discomfort

Find challenge in business

I recently updated my LinkedIn profile pic to state that “if you’re not nervous, you’re not growing.”  While all short catch phrases like this are intended to be short and snappy, these can also come across as naïve or trite.  I would like to expound on my thinking for those that perhaps see some truth in the snappy phraseology, but want to understand better.

To understand my point, it is key to understand the difference between Risk and Challenge.  Let’s start with some AI-generated definitions of Risk and Challenge:


Risk refers to the potential for negative outcomes or uncertain events that could have an impact on a person, organization, project, investment, or any other situation. It involves the possibility of loss, harm, or damage occurring due to various factors such as uncertainty, volatility, unpredictability, and potential hazards. Risks are typically assessed and managed in order to make informed decisions and take appropriate actions to mitigate or minimize their potential negative consequences.


A challenge is a difficult or demanding task, situation, or goal that requires effort, skill, and determination to overcome or achieve. Challenges can come in various forms, including personal, professional, intellectual, physical, or emotional. They often present opportunities for growth, learning, and development, as individuals or groups must push their boundaries, adapt, and innovate to successfully tackle the obstacles or problems they encounter. Challenges can be seen as motivators that inspire individuals to explore new possibilities and find creative solutions.

Risk involves the potential for a negative outcome and should be actively mitigated and avoided, and Challenge is a difficulty that presents opportunity for positive growth and learning.

This contrast is key to how I try to live my life:  I strive to find a balance between intentionally pushing myself into activities or situations that are hard and/or uncomfortable, while avoiding and actively reducing the potential for harm.  This applies to emotional, physical, and intellectual pursuits.  Some examples:

  • I will continue to climb big peaks here in Colorado, but I will bail easily upon the first indication of lightning anywhere close.
  • I am actively trying to learn a new language (Greek) while making sure I keep this pursuit in balance with all my other responsibilities.
  • I lean into my friendships and practice vulnerability, but not so much that it’s “creepy.”

I practice this same balance/tension between Risk and Challenge in my professional career.  And, I work with my clients to find appreciation of the value of this mode of thinking.

One difficulty I find in practice of this approach is that it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between Risks and Challenges.  What is a situation that is likely to have negative outcome, and should be avoided, and where are the areas where the company and its management should “lean in”?  My recommended approach is to start by implementing a process and procedures to actively assess and manage risks.  (There are numerous great articles available on how to set this up.  This is one area where PMI/PMP actually has some value to add.)  Active Risk Management provides the basis and the comfort level to then set aggressive goals (sometimes called “BHAGs”.)  This gives the CEO, the management team, and the company well-defined challenges to overcome — and provides a common basis for the culture of the team.

Applying the lesson of risks and challenges

As I like to say, “It Ain’t Rocket Science!  I’ve done rocket science, so I know.”  Active Risk Management and Seeking Challenge is more about discipline of the leadership, than it is about specific techniques or tools.  However, I would love to chat more with anyone interested in this topic.  Please reach out here.