Richard Branson nearly died last week.  Again.  This time, the accident-prone billionaire, who has cheated death before on extreme boating and ballooning adventures gone bad, was training for a cycling challenge. Speeding downhill, he hit a bump that sent him flying over his handlebars at full speed, his remarkable life flashing before his eyes.  “I genuinely thought I’d run out of lives,” a battered and bruised Sir Richard, who just last month escaped Death by Stingray, said from his hospital bed.


While there’s little doubt Virgin’s thrill-seeking CEO feeds off the attention and publicity his exploits spark, I like to think his true motivation bubbles up from a deeper, more soulful place. A place of voluntary discomfort.

As old as ancient Rome, voluntary discomfort is a practice that involves intentionally putting hardship in your path and conditioning yourself to withstand it until it feels like nothing.  By training yourself to function, even thrive, in adversity, you’ll be ready for whatever life throws at you.

Voluntary discomfort doesn’t have to be expensive, showy or life threatening. Modern practitioners recommend simple deprivations – cold showers instead of hot, skipping a meal, walking in bad weather, tackling monotonous household projects – as actionable ways to build character and resilience.


Voluntary discomfort can also be applied towards professional growth.

Consider my friend Jennifer.  Jen runs a marketing and design agency and spends an average of 20 hours per week prospecting and cold-calling business leads. Rejection is part of her job description. And yet she is as upbeat on Thursday as she was on Monday. “They may not acknowledge you the first time,” she explained. “But they usually do by the fourth or fifth attempt.”

Taking Jen’s lead and pushing through my cold-calling phobias, I reached out to two media executives – the president of a specialty TV channel and the executive editor of a national magazine – to start a business conversation.  The Prez?  Crickets.  The Editor?  She wrote me back within the half hour, and we had coffee last Tuesday.

Although one outcome was obviously more desirable that the other, exercises like this reinforce what Sir Richard, who has spent the past 30 years being hauled out of capsized boats and inverted balloon baskets, probably already knows.  It’s not about the destination; it’s about the unending push into the discomfort zone.

Katherine Gougeon explores social and cultural details that have an outsized ripple effect. Follow her on Twitter @kgougeon