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Supplement to Chapter 2: This May Hurt a Bit: Seeking Discomfort Zone Experiences


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When my children were small, one of our favorite Shel Silverstein poems spoke directly to this internal tug-of-war.  It’s one of those classics that grows up with you and works on many levels. Today, it hangs framed on our wall: 


Listen to the MUSTN'TS, child, 

Listen to the DON'TS 

Listen to the SHOULDN'TS 


Listen to the NEVER HAVES Then listen close to me- 

Anything can happen, child, 

ANYTHING can be  

(Where the Sidewalk Ends, New York: Harper and Row, 1974)


Silverstein speaks here of resisting those voices telling us what we cannot and should not do, and invites us to expand our possible futures. Removing our self-limitations to vulnerability is the first step.  And this includes dealing with “toxic positivity.”    


Society places an intense pressure on us to feel happy and positive all the time — even in the face of difficult, negative or uncomfortable situations or experiences.  Through such classic one-liner life philosophies as “Just stay positive,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” or Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life,” toxic positivity is a method of avoiding discomfort zone experiences and the vulnerability that comes with them.   


In her book, Toxic Positivity, Wendy Goodman speaks to the dangers of rejecting difficult experiences through false or excessive positivity that denies or minimizes discomfort zone experiences. “The core of toxic positivity is that it’s dismissive and it shuts down the conversation. It effectively says, ‘Nope, that feeling you’re experiencing, it’s wrong — and here’s why you should be happy instead!’”  In addition to blaming and shaming us for struggling through difficulties, toxic positivity can prevent the growth gifts that only discomfort zone experiences can produce.   


At best, Experience Design Leaders need to recognize toxic positivity as a hollow form of encouragement that should be avoided, even when well-intended.  And at worst, we need to identify it as a way experiencers avoid struggling with discomfort zone experiences and then provide opportunities for them to authentically and intentionally grapple with their discomfort. Or as a colleague of mine likes to say, “stand in the muck.” 



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We said at the outset of this chapter,  “This may hurt a bit.”  Discomfort zone experiences are, by design or not,  jolts to our system.  By raising our vulnerabilities, they break us out of our comfort zones — which are actually no comfort at all, because it is only within our discomfort zones that we can learn, grow, and change.  This is the anchor of ELVIS Experiential Learning Variables & Indicators System.  


These jolts initially take the form of risk invitations.  When we decide to accept such an invitations, we are making a risk-decision.  It turns out that risk-decisions are often more important than risk outcomes for transformative experiences.  For once an experiencer makes a risk-decision, they embark on a personal risk journey that includes a combination of physical, emotional, intellectual, and social risks.  These journeys are like pilgrimages and demand a kind of self-permission to become vulnerable in the face of the unknown.  This vulnerability is not only the source of discomfort, but also an essential precursor to the inner and outer courage needed for the journey and the change it holds. 


Among many other things, we designers are ambassadors of discomfort, conjuring different ways to challenge and provoke our experiencers.  But it is a compassionate role, even if the risks are difficult and the journey is bumpy.  A well-designed discomfort zone calls upon us to walk new and undiscovered paths, to actively participate in the world rather than spectate from afar, and to engage with ourselves on the inner and outer frontiers of our lives.  Ultimately, discomfort zone experiences are invitations to discover the world — and thereby ourselves — anew.

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