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Pain As A Teacher
“Pain unlocks a secret doorway in the mind, one that leads to both peak performance, and beautiful silence.” - David Goggins
Alone, in the chamber of our pain, we can find clarity and truth otherwise obscured.
In his masterpiece The Power Broker, Robert Caro narrates the rivalry between New York’s master builder, Robert Moses, and its former governor turned President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Caro explains how, prior to Roosevelt’s run for governor of New York, his political rivals underestimated him. They regarded Roosevelt, confined to his wheelchair, as “no more than a showy but harmless piece of window dressing.”
Caro points out that they “did not seem to consider what it had taken for Roosevelt to decide to go back into politics at a time when, Eleanor Roosevelt was later to recall, he was lying in bed and working for hours to try to wiggle one toe.”
Roosevelt’s head had always been tilted at that gay, confident angle; they didn’t seem to think of the strength that had had to be found somewhere to keep it tilted now.
Caro calls Roosevelt’s “agonizing steps” to the podium on the campaign trail “the manifestation of an indomitable spirit.” What others saw as outer, physical weakness, was in truth the fuel of inner strength.
I used to get this all wrong.
Like Roosevelt’s rivals, I used to get this all wrong. I did not truly grasp how pain and adversity could cultivate character and strength.
I used to avoid discomfort and pain. I rarely worked out and when I did, it wasn’t intense. I went for long walks but not on strenuous hikes. I was amused by the endless rotation of fads around fitness and self improvement, some of which seemed borderline masochistic. Get up at 4.30 am. Fast. Take a cold shower. Wrestle with other sweaty people on the mat or lift the heaviest weights you can. Risk injury. What was the point?
But what happened instead? I trained myself to avoid discomfort, even when it was necessary and valuable. I allowed myself to procrastinate and instinctively looked for shortcuts. After two years as an analyst at a large bank, I was ready to move on. My peers interviewed for jobs in private equity. That looked like more years of grueling work. Investment banking 2.0. I felt that I was above all that. Surely, for a smart person like me, there must be an easier way. I joined a small family office which allowed me to sidestep years of grinding and weekends at the office. I avoided a lot of discomfort.
It didn’t take long until I realized my mistake. Sure, the hours were better. But now I was stuck at a firm that nobody knew, doing all kinds of work, investment and other, that few would find valuable. The grunt work that I was avoiding would have shaped my pattern recognition and allowed me to continue a climb up the ladder with confidence. Instead, I’d hopped on a different ladder. One held together by duct tape. In retrospect, every time I opted for the ‘easy way’, every time I gave in to fear or my desire to avoid discomfort, I made my life harder.
“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.” ―Jerzy Gregorek
I am finally learning to recognize discomfort and pain as teachers. Seneca advised to regularly set aside days without comforts, “during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”
For a more contemporary embodiment of this idea, let’s look at David Goggins, a former Navy SEAL and ultramarathon runner.
I used to avoid Goggins’s work. His philosophy seemed extreme and unappealing. This guy seemed to relish in pain. Why would I want to go anywhere near that? Surprise, surprise. I read his book Can’t Hurt Me which explores Goggins’s dark childhood, his transformation, and his philosophy for life. It’s actually pretty good.
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“Pain unlocks a secret doorway in the mind, one that leads to both peak performance, and beautiful silence.”
Goggins grew up in a broken family with a brutally abusive father. He faced racism and failed in school. At his personal turning point, before pushing himself to join the SEALs through sheer force of will, he found himself overweight and in a dead-end job. Or, as he writes, “I should have been a statistic.”
Goggins transformed his pain and darkness into fuel. He pushed himself through extreme exercises and challenges, often with little preparation. He mastered BUD/S, the Navy SEAL training course, followed by a variety of extreme physical competitions, like 24-hour ultramarathons under extreme conditions.
His story reads as if he continuously sought out the most physically painful and challenging experiences he could find. His moments of transformation occurred when he was near failure, when his body started to break down, and when he persisted through a triumph of mind over body. Everything, he realized, comes down to discipline of mind and tolerance of pain.
Everything in life is a mind game! Whenever we get swept under by life’s dramas, large and small, we are forgetting that no matter how bad the pain gets, no matter how harrowing the torture, all bad things end.
Goggins calls this “callousing the mind”. Repeated experiences of pain build up a tolerance, the kind of callous your hands develop when handling weights or doing physical labor. This experience he believes to be transformational for life.
The reason it’s important to push hardest when you want to quit the most is because it helps you callous your mind. It’s the same reason why you have to do your best work when you are the least motivated.
Physical challenges strengthen my mind so I’m ready for whatever life throws at me, and it will do the same for you.
The book is about more than pain tolerance. The message is that we use barely a shred of our potential because tapping into more would require pushing through more pain than we tolerate. Goggins calls this the 40% rule:
When your mind first tells you that you are done, that you are tired, and that you cannot go ahead and carry on, you are in fact only 40% done.
Only by mastering pain, and the fear of pain, can we achieve a mastery of mind that unlocks our potential.
Only you can master your mind, which is what it takes to live a bold life filled with accomplishments most people consider beyond their capability.
There is an interesting duality to Goggins’s life. On the one hand, he takes his ideas to the extreme. He pushes himself until his bones break, until his nails tear off, until he collapses and needs to be carried to the emergency room. He proves his abilities under the most punishing and hostile conditions.
Sometimes it reads like he lives for the experience of pain because only pain allowed him to enter a space of peace in which the demons of his past were silent. Pushing through extreme pain led him to accomplishments that seemed to prove his worth. The moments of his greatest agony, paradoxically, became his healers.
The Buddha famously said that life is suffering. I’m not a Buddhist, but I know what he meant and so do you. To exist in this world, we must contend with humiliation, broken dreams, sadness, and loss.
While much of his message resonated with me, the intentional punishment of the body did not. His life was a beautiful transformation but felt incomplete.
Towards the end of the book, Goggins finds more integration and healing with his family and body. Still, I take his message with a grain of salt. I find inspiration in his endurance. I can see now how pain can be a necessary part of personal transformation and growth. But my goal is not to be at war with myself. My goal is to find the duality of inner peace and growth.
If you’re looking for a dose of motivation, definitely check out his book. I will send out a separate short email with a few of my favorite quotes and challenges.
As Morgan Housel likes to point out, there is an optimal amount of hassle in life. Stop trying to make the imperfect life perfect. Try to welcome the nonsense that comes your way. Ask: what can this miserable moment teach me? (The same goes for people, as I wrote in The Teachers of Pain).
Seeking out pain and discomfort can provide perspective and valuable contrast. Fasting lets us appreciate good food. Sleeping on a mat brings gratitude for our comfortable bed. Deprivation purges the poison of entitlement that creeps into our lives. Mastering the mind in a low stakes game can prepare us for the important hardships that await.
I recently stepped up my meditation practice to twice daily, 20 minutes or longer. I used to meditate on a chair. There, I could disappear into a blissful state of peace. Now, I sit on a pillow on the floor. I experiment with different poses. I’m not the most flexible person (not yet!) and, depending on which pose I try, my legs may revolt. ‘Are you kidding me? Get back on that chair.’ A foot falls asleep. My back is on fire. Instead of finding my inner happy place, my body aches and yearns to twitch and shift. I start wondering how much time is left before I catch myself and return to a mantra or observance of breath.
This might not be the meditation I enjoy. It might not be the one I wanted. But it’s the one that teaches me about my body and about the perception of time. It is a reminder that everything is temporary. Pain, discomfort, embarrassment, all sensations and thoughts come and go.
At the very least, pain teaches us that ‘this too shall pass’. But I’ve come to appreciate that there is more to it, that Goggins is right about discomfort providing a space for “the most important conversations you’ll ever have,” namely “the ones you’ll have with yourself.”
Thank you for reading,
It could be useful to experiment with discomfort, deprivation, and pain. Look for what you avoid or fear. Push yourself to experience your boundaries. Look for the point at which your mind wants to give up and see if you can find more in your body. Here are a few ideas.
Pain: Experiment with a workout you detest. Spend an hour doing something you dislike if only to experience the relief and joy when it’s over. I enjoy doing weights but I dislike the boredom and strain of cardio. I’ve recently started doing the Stairmaster. Is it fun? No. Can I bear 20 minutes while listening to an audiobook? Sure. Honestly, I could probably bear more. Time to step it up.
Deprivation: Try a spending detox. Pick a week or month in which you buy nothing but the essentials on a strict budget. ‘Is this the condition I feared?’ Keep a list of everything you wanted to buy but didn’t. At the end, review the list and consider what still feels important. How many things did you forget about already? Reward yourself with a purchase that feels truly important and recognize how often your impulses lead you astray.
Constraints: Travel on a budget. On your next trip, set yourself tighter constraints than needed. Get creative. What could you do, where would you go, who could you meet, how would you experience the world, if you didn’t make it about comfort and indulgence (not to mention social media status). Visit the places not popular on Instagram. Talk to people you’d never meet. Look for simple but delicious food (check outfor ideas). Return with a new perspective and gratitude for the comforts of your life.