Jan 24, 2022

Finding Comfort in Discomfort

Jan 24, 2022
Mark T. Johnsen
Chief Wealth Architect, CEO & Founder
Greater comfort. Isn’t that what we all seek in this new era, where a rogue virus can shut down the entire world in a matter of months? Where our portfolios can be cut in half in a matter of weeks? And, where we have so many messages and so much noise coming at us in just a matter of minutes, we don’t know who to believe or trust. Particularly in times of chaos or when so much seems out of our control, it is natural to seek comfort. It’s what’s sold to us. But it can come at a high price.

I think we often conflate comfort with financial wealth. We think those who have more money or resources must be better off. But is that really what’s helping us to be wealthy in all the building blocks of our well-being that we need to thrive?

Source: “Well Being: The Five Essential Elements” by Tom Rath & Jim Harter

I have worked in and around money for the last 30 years trying to provide greater comfort to our clients. In the process, I have seen how easy it is to lose perspective on our relationship with comfort, especially living amongst all of the affluence in America and here in Silicon Valley. Is all this comfort really helping us to be truly wealthy in a holistic way? We may be financially “wealthy”…but are we truly well? Questions like these are why we started Wealth Architects in 2005 and Wealth Architects University (WAU) in 2013. We wanted to explore these universal issues of what makes up holistic wealth and how we can realize greater self-awareness and well-being by learning from experts in various disciplines.

At our University in 2021, award-winning journalist Michael Easter explained our complex relationship with comfort, discomfort and well-being. He explained that, at one time, humans had to be on constant high alert for their survival, a world of moment-to-moment action that, although stressful, fully connected us to the present. In this modern, more comfortable world, we may be safer, but we are less present. Our lifestyles are easier but less fulfilling. We come to seek and expect comfort, often to the detriment of our ability to truly live a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Source: The World Happiness Report (2020)

So a fundamental question we must ask ourselves is: Does happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction really derive from the comfort of greater financial wealth? Our country is the richest in the world and we barely make the top 20 in terms of overall happiness and well-being. Psychologist Dr. Emma Seppala spoke to WAU in 2020 about the hedonic treadmill: the idea that repeated boosts of happiness (or comforts) lose their potency over time and we become desensitized, continually adapting and grasping for “more.”

Source: Akshay Mehra (2022)

The older I get, the more I see how we overvalue comfort. Our brains are wired to grasp for comfort and seek to avoid discomfort. Yet so many meaningful things come from discomfort, struggle, and hopefully the subsequent personal triumph of persevering through that adversity.

My dad said something formative to me when I was a teenager and had asked him for advice with a difficult problem I was facing. He was sitting in his big, leather chair and told me, “Son, if I make that decision for you, you will never get comfortable making those decisions when I am gone.” That answer was certainly not comforting to me at the time. But a year later, he was gone forever. I realize now the importance, for me, of that advice and how losing him helped make me more resilient and accepting of uncertainty. I eventually found greater comfort from that huge discomfort of losing my role model in life.

Having navigated many of life’s comforts and discomforts and lived with and without money, I believe the journey to a wealthier life is about embracing discomfort and growing from it to find more meaning and purpose.

“Age is an issue of mind over matter: if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”  –Mark Twain (often attributed)

I had a big birthday recently. I am trying not to mind being half a century old, but I do want it to matter. So nearing the age my father was when I lost him, I paused a little longer to reflect on the past and contemplate the future. One of the ways I celebrated was to raft down the Payette River in Idaho and its class three rapids with my youngest son and his soccer team. While the rough and tumble of the river was going to be anything but comfortable, we had nonetheless traveled hundreds of miles to raft it. I immediately recognized that my life was very much like that wild river we were on. Like the water in the river, time doesn’t stop. It goes in only one direction and so do our lives. And you quickly forget how far you have gone downstream and how much comfort and discomfort you experience along the way.

Like the twists and turns in the Payette River, with its stretches of rapids and periods of rush and volatility, we all experience life events and financial transitions that toss us around and leave us feeling stripped of comfort. These proverbial rapids of life can include losing a loved one, going through a divorce, being fired from a job, or parenting a child who is struggling. We may feel terrified, like we can hardly catch our breath. But, these discomforts challenge us to grow, adapt, gain wisdom, acquire skills and build resilience for what comes next down the river. The next time we face a rapid in life, we can say, I’ve done this before.

I saw how the collective thrill and discomfort that day on the Payette bonded my son and his teammates. They carried themselves differently after that trip. It was a small rite of passage that, though scary for some (including their parents), instilled a true sense of accomplishment and togetherness. The long bus ride, the freezing wet clothes, water up our noses – it all helped us feel bold and alive and grateful for the calm waters and warm meal at the end. We had reduced our experience to the bare elements and felt the edges of our humanity come up roughly against the awesome power of nature.

The irony is that the comfort we often seek can do us a huge disservice. We ride the waves of our own emotions around comfort and discomfort, and we often see that dance play out in the financial-life decisions we make. Our instinct for safety and comfort is often in direct conflict with what is good for us.

The financial services industry often preys on that instinct to maximize comfort by telling us they can predict the direction of the markets, or engineering products with high costs to guarantee returns with a safety net. We begin to misunderstand and misappropriate risk because of it. And often, we are so worried about timing the market that we forget declines, like the rapids on the river, are the risks we must accept in order to participate. As I learned from my grandfather at a young age, sometimes you buy stocks when everyone else is selling them exactly because the news is uncomfortable; you push through that discomfort anyway and bet on things getting better in the long-term, because it always does. I have seen, many times over, the resilience that builds in our clients when there’s a market calamity or they experience a tough life transition. They almost always come back with a stronger mindset for the next set of rapids on their financial-life journey.

Comfort and discomfort are neither all good, nor all bad. I see them as Yin and Yang, a beautiful counterbalance. We don’t understand or see clearly one without the perspective of the other. 

And I believe we all do better with guides on our journey down the river of life.  That day on the Payette River, I came to understand that our guide’s role was to not make the ride comfortable – because she knew it wouldn’t be – but to prepare us and make it memorable. She got us to laugh, she taught us how to paddle together as a team, and how to help someone if they fell overboard. She encouraged us and showed each of us how to ride on the front of the boat into big rapids. Good guides are leaders who provide us with a sense of security and belief that we can persevere, which usually means getting us comfortable with being uncomfortable for the time being, so we can experience true long-term growth.

My aim is to be such a guide for our clients and the people I love and respect. My early lesson in resilience with the loss of my father ultimately led me to my purpose of helping others navigate their own financial-life journeys and adversities. In many ways, I see that loss as part of the genesis of my career and calling, which ultimately was the founding of Wealth Architects – to build a company of guides helping to navigate others down the river of life.

My journey has convinced me that a wealthy life is available to all of us if we more actively embrace the discomforts that we face with an attitude of gratitude and an eternal optimism that there is always more growth to look forward to downstream. It’s more often the discomforts – the big rocks and rapids in life – that cause us to grow, to build resilience for what comes next and to really appreciate what we have. They give us the perspective and wisdom we need in order to go with the flow and face what comes next downriver. 

Source: Pexels


The information provided in this commentary is intended to be educational in nature and not advice relative to any investment or portfolio offered through Wealth Architects. The views expressed in this commentary reflect the opinion of the author based on data available as of the date this commentary was written and is subject to change without notice. The information provided in this blog is not a solicitation for the investment management services of Wealth Architects.