Fuel Personal Growth by Deliberately Seeking Discomfort

A study at the famous Second City improv club in Chicago shows the benefits of purposely aiming for discomfort

Emily Willingham
Published in
3 min readMar 30, 2022


A white man with a beard wearing a white collared shirt, red scarf, and dark pants stands on a stage backlit by alternating blue and red lights in an otherwise dark room. He has his arms slightly outstretched. The dark silhouettes of a few people in the audience can be seen.
Photo by Michel Grolet on Unsplash

When it comes to building athletic strength and resilience, a well-known phrase captures the process: “no pain, no gain.” That rhyming philosophy may apply to mental growth as much as muscle growth, according to research involving one of the world’s most famous comedy clubs, Second City in Chicago.

Yes, that Second City.

In this case, researchers conducted a study with cooperation from Second City improv instructors, who ran classes by giving one of two possible sets of instructions to students. One consisted of the usual directions for an improv class, presumably involving something along the lines of “yes … and.” The other instruction that some classes received was that the students should try to aim for feeling “awkward and uncomfortable” during the improv exercises.

If you’ve ever seen the best comedians doing their work, you can see them in real time making themselves — and you — as uncomfortable as possible, pushing the limits of awkwardness and embarrassment, and we can’t stop laughing until we’re crying.

The researchers in this case used improv to examine outcomes when people deliberately seek out discomfort, face it, and deal with it, even if it means a few tears.

The result was that students instructed to seek discomfort did so by being more persistent and taking more risks than their regular improv peers. As a result, the discomfort-seekers showed better progress in improv and absorbed more about the craft. In other words, they experienced more personal growth.

A set of four other experiments outside the improv setting suggested similar benefits, including feelings of coping better with things that made participants uncomfortable. When they engaged in discussions that involved unwelcome news or information, those who deliberately sought discomfort felt they made better progress than those whose assigned aim was “to learn.”

It’s possibly evident to most of us, at least intellectually, that if we don’t take risks, we don’t have the chance to feel discomfort and…



Emily Willingham
Writer for

Journalist, author, Texan, biologist. I write All About Us (we=us), All About Adolescence (our longest growth stage), & All About Aging (we’re all doing it).

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