At an event in Kansas a short time ago, I witnessed one of the most courageous moments of my life. Not from a police officer or paramedic or firefighter – but from a random audience member in a convention hall who stood up and gave a bit of advice to the crowd. “Do the uncomfortable thing,” he said during a discussion with young people on their dreams for the future and their own communities. The man looked calm and confident as though he spent his days dispensing advice to large groups of people.
I was impressed. His statement wasn’t referencing the morality or intrinsic value of doing something uncomfortable. And he didn’t say “be uncomfortable” to affect change. There was no commentary about the ‘why’ of it. It was just a “do it” type of statement.
Why did I find this so courageous? Well, I discovered that in fact he had not been comfortable standing in front of that large audience and speaking those words of wisdom. When I went over to shake his hand and tell him I was impressed by his message and his calm demeanor, he told me he had been terrified. “It was probably the most uncomfortable thing I have ever done,” he confided. Turns out he was the personification of Ernest Hemingway’s assertion that “courage is grace under pressure.”
His advice to “do the uncomfortable thing” wasn’t entirely original, of course. Others have said that or similar things. But never, I imagine, have they said it as they were literally doing it. He had done the uncomfortable thing in the hope it might benefit the young people who, like young people everywhere, were facing their future with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
In that light, his literal delivery of “do the uncomfortable thing” became a profound piece of advice for me personally.
If on the other hand he had stood up, cleared his throat, got everyone’s attention, and told them to “think outside the box,” I might have gagged. “Think outside the box” has become such a cliché that it is self-parody. Anyone who tells you to think outside the box has failed to live up to their own advice. They are so far inside the box you could ship them around the world by FedEx.
Other phrases are similar: “you can’t solve new problems with old thinking”; “if nothing changes, nothing changes”; “take it to the next level”; “reinvent the wheel.” They are all phrases that once upon a time might have sounded fresh and snappy. Now they are cringeworthy clichés. They are also crutches. We rely on them when we have nothing new to add but want to feel like we are contributing. I say “we” because I imagine at times we have all fallen into the trap when stuck for words. I know I have personally fallen into the odd cliché.
We use them in conversation, at conferences and, heaven help us as municipal politicians, in council meetings. We too often think of them as oratorical grease when they are really rhetorical sludge. They gum things up and actually prevent us from, forgive me, thinking outside the box. They make us lazy speakers and lazy thinkers.
We don’t need more people telling us to find different ways of thinking. We need more people to actually exercise different ways of thinking. We need more people to think thoughts they’ve never thought before, consider ideas they’ve never considered before, implement strategies they’ve never implemented before. We need more people to think and to do the uncomfortable thing.
I’ve been to a lot of events where I’ve heard people stand up to speak and use tropes that have lost all meaning, and the speakers didn’t appear at all nervous. Perhaps because they’ve spoken many times before. Perhaps they sincerely believe their tropes are innovative – and they mistake the audience’s inevitable silence for approval. Not only should we avoid tropes and clichés ourselves but when we hear others falling into the trap perhaps we should politely ask that if they’re not saying something new or meaningful or helpful, what’s the point? Honestly, how valuable is it to stand up and say we need more “outside the box” thinking to solve our problems?
Leaders in any community, of any size, should use words to connect with people, spark a conversation, encourage innovation, challenge others (and ourselves). This is particularly true when we are trying to engage young people to get involved in their community. As a former politician and now community builder, I know how difficult it can be to connect with young people. I know how difficult it can be for young people to connect to, and identify with, political leaders. I also know how important it is for the older generation of leaders to try.
And at the risk of falling back into a cliché of my own, it’s more important now than ever.
As long as there have been humans on the planet there have generational gaps but perhaps none as cavernous as now. We have a new generation that has never known a world without the Internet and social media. Young people today interact with each other and with the world much differently than young people did a generation ago. They are certainly more tech savvy and can be more cynical of the world because they are exposed to so much negativity online. And there are all kinds of social impairments linked to living life on the Internet.
There’s an argument that the new generation is growing up too slowly thanks to social media. There’s also a counter argument that they’re growing up too quickly. According to a BBC article in March of 2022, there’s even a term for it: “KGOY – or ‘kids getting older younger.’” Yet, young people also use social media to find commonalities and join together to fight for causes that excite them. And they’re also as happy as the rest of us to band together in person.
At that Kansas convention I mentioned, the young people in the audience were thrilled to talk about their own futures and the futures of their communities. It was one of the most personally inspiring events I have had the pleasure of participating in.
And they are willing to take risks. They are willing to try uncomfortable things. We need to deeply understand that. It’s not just that as older people we become more comfortable, it’s that younger people are more comfortable with doing uncomfortable things. They share that capacity with previous generations but perhaps more so now in a world of social media and connectivity. They are not nearly as afraid of change as we are as older people. So we need younger people to be more engaged at leadership levels. No, let me correct that. We need, as older people, to allow younger people to be more engaged, we need to invite them to take on more leadership roles at a younger age. This is true across North America at all levels of government.
As a 2018 Forbes article pointed out, “Apart from the abundance of energy, youth may also provide fresh perspectives, irreverence for the status quo and a disruptive, creative, innovative mind that is willing to try experiments that may fail with no concerns about reputation.”
The article – entitled 5 Reasons Young Leaders will Change the World (And The Workplace) – quoted Desiree Peterkin Bell, founder of a US-based consulting firm, DP Bell and Associates. “The only way to be impactful is to be uncomfortable,” said Bell of young people. “I’ve been blown away by their desire to be uncomfortable. I think it’s something the older folks have missed. Young people are looking at a country that is more divided than they ever remember. They’re realizing they have to have these hard, uncomfortable positions if they want to make an impact and move the needle forward on any issue.”
I realize more than a few in the older generations are skeptical if not downright hostile to the idea of young people as leaders. “Young people don’t understand the world enough or have the experience to be leaders,” they’ll say. That in itself is something of a trope. Perhaps it is our experience – and our unflappable faith in that experience – that is a roadblock to progress. We are too comfortable with the way things are. I am not suggesting young people have to take exclusive leadership roles. Rather, we need to have them co-leading with us. We must learn to listen to them more than we expect them to listen to us. And not just when we need them to connect our iPad to the Internet.
The world is changing at Internet speed and it will not slow down. We need a mindset that is open to new ideas, embraces new challenges, and is excited about new opportunities.
We need to do the uncomfortable thing.