“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” 

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes 

 They say that life begins at your comfort zone, but few really understand why this is the case. We are all tempted by comfort the moment we are able to achieve it, and while comfort is not problematic in itself, a comfortable life is by no means synonymous with a good life. This is where we get the term “golden handcuffs.” Comfort can be a powerful sedative which breeds complacency and makes it difficult to do the things we know we should.

How Life Rewards the Uncomfortable

From the literal moment we are born, we are jerked out of a warm asylum and into a confusing, chaotic struggle. This struggle pervades early life; childhood can be seen as a series of abrupt removals from one’s comfort zone. Going to school for the first time, spending a night away from parents, joining a sports team, first dates, first jobs… Every year, young people are uprooted from their routines. From the people they have grown accustomed to. From the identities they thought were theirs.

Change is inherently painful. We do not tend to choose it if we are given a choice. We gravitate toward homeostasis, and when we break out of it, it often feels like some terrible mistake has been made. But so often in this phase of life, we are given no apparent choice but to dive straight in. The pressures to grow and adapt are too strong to resist, and the few who are unwilling or unable to adapt are regarded as immature or impaired. After making one of these shifts, we go through a distressing transitional period, often lasting months. Our old sources of reinforcement are gone, and new ones haven’t had time to come in and take their place.

But with the conclusion of this transition comes a golden period. We start to acclimate to this new life. There is an air of novelty and opportunity without the alien feeling we had at first. The new people who seemed so distant at first are exciting now. Spontaneity takes the place of routine, and we start to see ourselves in a new light too. The interactions between our personalities and new stimuli let us see sides of ourselves we forgot or didn’t know were there. We discover our own ideals and new paths to aligning with them. And this is what we call growth.

The cycle is reliable for quite a while, and while some attempt to fight it every time, some learn to love it. Whether leaving for college, moving to a new city, or starting a new job, we plunge into the unknown with a kind of confidence that it will all work out. And maybe sometimes it doesn’t. But it seems that overwhelmingly, the decision to let go of comfort and embrace the unknown is met with generous reward.

“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles… This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.” 

– Terence McKenna, Unfolding the Stone


But something strange often happens once one has reached adulthood. Life stops pushing. The rapids that once left you with no choice now leave you in a pool of all the choice you ever wanted. Sure, occasionally your life gets shaken up unexpectedly. But for the most part, your precious balance remains undisturbed. Even stranger, it starts to feel like you are being pushed in the opposite direction. The pressures, social and biological, that once forced you to change and adapt have abruptly decided it’s time to settle down. It’s time to meet someone — the last someone. It’s time to settle into a good city, job, and home. Now the people insisting on change and growth are the stunted ones. It’s time to commit.

Eventually, it becomes clear that your comfort zone isn’t really supposed to be expanding anymore. So you cave in, and it’s not so bad. You meet someone you enjoy being around and start planning your life together. You get a nice house and a job that you don’t hate. And you’ve made it. You have achieved the life everyone wants. The life adolescence wouldn’t let you have. A life that never forces you to change. That keeps you in that warm asylum of your comfort zone and never throws you into chaos.

“We love comfort. We love state-of-the-art practice facilities, oak-paneled corner offices, spotless locker rooms, and fluffy towels. Which is a shame, because luxury is a motivational narcotic: It signals our unconscious minds to give less effort. It whispers, Relax, you’ve made it.” 

– Daniel Coyle, The Little Book of Talent 

The evolution that you will undergo when you’ve achieved this kind of stability is a much more subtle kind. It’s so gradual as to be nearly imperceptible. The fun and challenge and excitement slowly die down a little bit. And again in a few more years. Everything becomes a watered-down version of itself — especially you. You forget much of your personality. You forget your potential. And you forget that you’ve forgotten. And this is what we call decay.


Don’t Let Your Needs Be Needs

19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is infamous for his bold stance against the easy life. In his book, Hiking with Nietzsche, John Kaag points out that Nietzsche’s philosophy is sometimes critiqued as immature and best suited for adolescence. But Kaag claims that many of Nietzsche’s ideas are not only appropriate for those in the midst of adulthood, but may even be “lost on the young.”

“I had no idea how dull the world could sometimes be. How easy it would be to remain in the valleys, to be satisfied with mediocrity. Or how difficult it would be to stay alert to life… Being a responsible adult is, among other things, often to resign oneself to a life that falls radically short of the expectations and potentialities that one had or, indeed, still has.” 

– John Kaag, Hiking with Nietzsche


Though many of Nietzsche’s ideas are indeed grandiose and dramatic, they can also be powerful reminders that one has a choice to bear the discomfort needed to do great things. He argued that the great life was the life of the individual who overcomes resistance — who overcomes one’s own desire for pleasure and comfort. By developing self-control and integration of the parts of the psyche, she could develop autonomy over her own actions and direct them toward her highest goals. She could be a creative force and live in a way that affirmed her own nature and promoted her growth.

“It is time for man to fix his goal. It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough for it. But this soil will one day be poor and weak; no longer will a high tree be able to grow from it… I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.” 

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

There is a popular belief that most of the personal evolution and growth you undergo in life will be wrapping up by the time you’re thirty. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the time most people reach thirty, they’ve carved themselves into a life that leaves them no room for growth and accepted that this is simply the norm. This kind of stagnation is not inevitable, but you must build the habit of continually breaking out and expanding your comfort zone to prevent it.

A life limited to your comfort zone will almost certainly hold you back from your potential. You cannot build a robust mind by sheltering yourself from reality. Avoiding uncomfortable surroundings will make you vulnerable when things don’t go according to plan. Avoiding uncomfortable feedback will keep you from developing your ideas and developing into the person you are capable of being. Avoiding uncomfortable beliefs will shield you from the truth. And avoiding uncomfortable situations will create barriers that may keep you from ever knowing who you were capable of being. You must learn to do what scares you.

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” 

– Kelly Clarkson


– Just kidding, that one’s Nietzsche too.

Another strong supporter of choosing growth over fear was Abraham Maslow. But he is also responsible for popularizing one of the greatest obstacles to this choice: needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs taught people that they have certain psychological needs, and if these needs are not met, they are incomplete or deficient as people. Securing these needs is challenging, but losing them is easy. Many choose not to take risks in their lives for fear of losing the people and circumstances that meet their needs. But the truth is that you don’t have mandatory needs. You are not deficient if all of your longings are not met — in fact, it would be impossible to have all of your longings met. Maslow said:

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” 

– Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science

You must understand that your mind is not a delicate machine to be protected from variability and stress. The mind can be made better through stress and discomfort. When you force yourself out of your comfort zone, you gain reference experiences that teach you the things you feared aren’t so bad. You defend yourself against the threats to your comfort, expanding your comfort zone until everything is comfortable, and all barriers to value alignment have been demolished.

The older you get, the more resolve it requires to choose change and growth, and the harder it becomes to sacrifice security and comfort and order. Choosing anything other than growth is a sure path to regret. And allowing your craving for comfort to stand in the way of your unique potential is one of the most common barriers to living the greatest life possible and aligning with your ideals.

Do not confuse a life of comfort and ease for the good life. The good life is one of pushing your boundaries, incrementally overcoming yourself, striving for greatness — whatever that means for you. The happiness that results from the absence of discomfort is the happiness of mediocrity. Live your life, not as if you were trying to hoard a precious treasure, but as if you were crafting your own autobiography with every decision — because you are.