How Embracing Discomfort Leads to Growth

NACS Leadership Forum speaker Sterling Hawkins shared how to find success amid uncertainty.

February 13, 2023

By Jeff Lenard

MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—“What’s between you and the goals you have for you and your business over the next year?”

Among the biggest factors is simply the unknown, according to Sterling Hawkins, founder of Sterling Hawkins Group, who closed the 2023 NACS Leadership Forum on Feb. 10.

While most people consider the unknown to be a challenge, Hawkins argued that the unknown is an opportunity.

“It’s only within the unknown that you can realize your potential,” he said.

Hawkins spoke from experience. He grew up a 5th generation retailer, having to master the intersection of technology and extreme competition. He launched a successful tech company that eventually collapsed, and the experience led him to rethink how to go to market with new ideas.

He offered convenience retail industry thought leaders five tips to go from wanting something to willing it to happen, or as he called the concept, #NoMatterWhat.

  1. Hunt discomfort: “The only choice we get when it comes to discomfort is how we want to handle it,” Hawkins said. Most people constantly turn away from discomfort, and that leads to satisfaction with the current state. “Discomfort’s not something to avoid,” Hawkins said, citing examples of how discomfort increases learning and ultimately success.
  2. Get a tattoo: No, you don’t physically need to get inked, but you need to be all-in on your commitment—and demonstrate it. Examples include Red Robin’s CEO promising to get a tattoo if the company hit a goal, and other leaders who encourage and celebrate audacious goals, even if they may not be reachable. “Commit beyond what you can see as possible. Commit beyond your comfort zone,” Hawkins said.
  3. Build a street gang: Find support for your big idea. "This is about surrounding yourself with people who are going to hold you accountable for what it is that you want to achieve,” Hawkins said. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have Dream” speech wasn’t the speech he was going to give, but a close friend and supporter pushed the civil rights leader to change direction, Hawkins shared. And the rest is history.
  4. Flip it: Making a problem bigger may ultimately solve the problem. “Your biggest challenge may be your biggest success,” he said. That doesn’t mean creating undue stress but finding new ways to look at what the real problem is.
  5. Surrender: Accept things exactly as they are—and exactly as they aren’t, he said. It means acknowledging discomfort to make that breakthrough. “We cannot change anything until we accept it,” he said, quoting Carl Jung.

Look for more coverage of the 2023 NACS Leadership Forum in the April issue of NACS Magazine.

Jeff Lenard is NACS vice president of strategic industry initiatives. He can be reached at