The cold water shocked my arms and sent a panic message from my limbs to my brain–and my heart.

I was set to make a big swim–a 1.5 mile arc from San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island to Ghirardelli Square, the famed Alcatraz swim. The thing is, I said I would do it naked as part of a bet. It was time to fulfill my end of the bargain.

Sliding off a boat wearing nothing and splashing into sub-sixty degree water was anything but comfortable. The shock of the cold water screamed against my skin, every neuron firing a warning sign in my brain telling me to stop. Swimming naked from Alcatraz was not a good idea. It wasn’t safe, it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t comfortable.

Pushing past your boundaries into scary, new, difficult–and certainly uncomfortable–places is one of the key rules to unleashing your potential.

I’m inside of another book this week, reading the last pages of Todd Henry’s latest book, Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day. The book is a minefield for great ideas on building a life (and body of work) that you’re proud of. From shaping the decisions you make (and recognizing that decisions are powerful, albeit painful), to understanding why mediocrity is so rampant, to listening to your emotions and jealousy as information on areas to improve–it’s taken me a long time to read this book because each of the ideas is sifting and settling in my mind as I try to incorporate them into my life.

What does it take to get uncomfortable?

“To make a valuable contribution, you have to get uncomfortable and embrace lifelong growth and skill development.” –Todd Henry, Die Empty.

You don’t need to strip off all your clothes and jump into a freezing body of murky water to get uncomfortable–although doing so certainly helped a tribe of friends and family pull together $32,398 for charity: water. In your own life, however, getting uncomfortable is critical for growth. For stretching, building, clarifying, and growing.

In “Step Out of Your Comfort Zone,” Todd looks at what he calls “dark rooms” that we like to avoid–places its easier not to go into, because we feel safer outside.

We protect ourselves in the following ways:

  • We’re afraid of harm — and we take big steps to stay out of harm’s way, but then inadvertently miss all of the good stuff of life
  • We protect our identity — we want to “live with the illusion of invulnerability” instead of ever risking failure.
  • We love stability — and “the more there is to protect, the less people are willing to try new things.” We risk losing out on all of the future good by holding on too tightly to what’s around us. (This is why good is often the enemy of the great).
  • Our ego wants control — and so even when we’ve made poor choices, we want to stand by our ego and our decision for fear of being wrong.

Why should we bother getting uncomfortable? Because growth is messy and uncomfortable.

“Growth is painful, messy, and very uncomfortable, and occurs only when we are willing to stretch ourselves in order to accept new challenges.” — Todd Henry.

Back in the open water, the salty cold bay water bit into my mind and the chill seared my body in places that were normally protected by fabric. I was crazy to be doing this, wasn’t I?

I pushed my arms the way I’d trained for decades, and stroked to the edge of the island. I touched it, standing, nude, shivering in the early morning fog. I splashed quickly back in the water and put my face down. Great stories aren’t made sitting on the sidelines, or curling up on the couch.

It was time to swim.