There are two kinds of pain.
The first kind should be endured. Keep running through that pain and you will grow. On the other side of the struggle there waits a more fluid, stronger gait. Beautiful new vistas will open up that can only be discovered by those who face the suffering. Let’s call this valuable pain.
The best and bravest thing to do with valuable pain is to greet it as a necessary cost. Then minimise it by focussing on the vision of the better life that is only possible beyond the pain. Let that inspire you to persevere.
When the pain fades you will fly down the trail.
Until the next ache.
That is how magnificent innovations, like lightbulbs, smartphones and self-driving trains have been discovered. Despite the designers’ frustrations. It is how you find stunning sections of track when you shove through those scrubby bushes. Despite your scratched legs. And it is how some people develop relationships that deal in the subsurface. Despite the fear of real.
Such things are only possible when people pursue the aspirational instead of accepting the accessible.
Without pushing through valuable discomfort, humanity stays in its rut. The things we don’t know remain unknown. Life is relegated to a repetitive regurgitation of whatever is already established.
I knew a boy who decided at nine years old that he had tasted enough foods to know that it was only six things he liked. His parents stopped providing those. By the time he was 11 the tears were long gone and he was reading recipe books for fun.
Swallowing valuable pain is an essential ingredient of success. This is true in trail running, healthy eating, career development, personal relationships, and business leadership.
But sometimes we face the other kind of pain which is not valuable.
Sometimes our imaginations mislead us to think there is a greener trail, a fuller relationship and a more productive business team on the other side of the struggle, when, in reality, there is just more pain because this situation is one of those we simply can’t change. We’re just not that powerful.
This kind of pain should make you stop. There is no brighter side to it. It doesn’t produce new life. It erodes your spirit until your vision fades and your hearing dulls. If you keep going against this pain, you will eventually lose yourself. Let’s call this pointless pain.
The best and bravest thing to do with pointless pain is to stop whatever you are doing that is allowing you to get hurt. Those trails lead deeper into lethal lands and acidic air. Decline the fight, change direction radically and move away.
But that is not an excuse for being lazy. There’s always a cost involved in cutting yourself free from the source of pointless pain. That is the alternative valuable pain. Do that rather.
Stop doing long runs if that bony tenderness stays sore throughout your run. That’s bad pain. Rather work through the discomfort of giving up the old trail you love so much. Persevere through frustration to learn how to rest. Then experiment until you discover a different running routine that is kinder to your body. Those are valuable discomforts. On the other side, while you may not boast the long trails, you will enjoy shorter ones.
Stop engaging your sister if she keeps punishing you for being your own person. That’s pointless. Rather face up to the unpopular and hard truth that shared DNA does not automatically lead to healthy relationships. Persevere past the guilt until you really accept that you can’t make your sister open-hearted and won’t be close to her until she decides to become less controlling. If she ever does. That is valuable pain. On the other side, while you may be distant from your biological sister, you will be super close to your inner one.
Stop coaching that employee who doesn’t want to change the behaviours that are undermining the team’s success. Rather work through your own inability to win this one, and plan the difficult conversation. That is a worthwhile struggle. On the other side you will meet a more humble, effective you.
Sometimes chasing the dream through the mess of reality is the way to grow. Other times it’s a sure way to disintegrate.
So how can we sort out when to chase our dreams, and when to accept that we shouldn’t invest more in this one?
If you learn that skill, you will be wiser, happier and deeply at ease.
I don’t have the magic answer. This is hard stuff. But I have one idea to share. Though simple, I’ve salvaged it from my own and my clients’ stories of failure and success over the last 30 years. Perhaps it has some value for you.
Here’s my big idea: The more comfortable we are with ourselves, especially our own strengths, needs and inadequacies, the quicker we are able to recognise when we’re riding a good wave despite the terror. We can also see when we’re forcing things in order to prove something or get external approval.
The best way to lead ourselves better through pain is to have a really honest, mature relationship with ourselves.
While we were eating our breakfast, a wise 10-year-old girl said to me: “When we run the trail I get stones in my shoe. Sometimes I can wriggle my foot until the stone shifts to a place that doesn’t hurt. Then I run even faster because I didn’t stop. But other stones just keep hurting so I have to stop and take it out. Then I carry it for a while and look at it before I throw it away.”