Pain Plus Reflection Equals Progress
Our most painful moments are also our most important. Rather than run from pain, we need to identify it, accept it, and learn how to use it to better ourselves.
Our images of learning are filled with positive thoughts about how we learn from others. We read memoirs from the titans of industry, read op-ed pieces from thought leaders, and generally try to soak up as much as we can. With all this attention placed on learning and improving and knowing, it might surprise you that we’re missing one of the most obvious sources of learning: ourselves.
Pain is something we all try to avoid, both instinctively and consciously. But if you want to do amazing things in life, you need to change your relationship with pain. Ray Dalio, the longtime leader of Bridgewater, the largest hedge fund in the world, argues that pain “is a signal that you need to find solutions so you can progress.” Only by exploring it and reflecting on it can we start to learn and evolve. “After seeing how much more effective it is to face the painful realities that are caused by your problems, mistakes, and weaknesses, I believe you won’t want to operate any other way,” Dalio writes in his book Principles.
There is an adage that says if you’re not failing, then you’re not really pushing the limits of what’s possible. Sometimes when we push, we fall, and sometimes we break through. When we fall, the key is to reflect on the failures. Doing that in the moment, however, is often a very painful process that goes against our human operating system.
Our painful moments are important moments. When we confront something painful, we are left with a choice between an ugly and painful truth or a beautiful delusion. Many of us opt for the latter and it slows our progress.
We’ve known about this problem for a long time: We’ve watched others make mistakes and fail to learn from them. They are blind to the mistakes that are so clear to us. They run from the pain that could be the source of learning. They become comfortable operating without pain. They become comfortable protecting the version of themselves that existed yesterday, not the version of themselves that’s better than they were yesterday.
Rather than run from pain, we need to identify it, accept it, and learn how to use it to better ourselves. For us to adapt, we need to learn from the uncomfortable moments. We need to value a tough-love approach, where people show us what we’re missing and help us get better.
You have a choice: You can prefer that the people around you fail to point out your blind spots, or you can prefer that they do. If you want them to, it’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be awkward. It’s going to hurt. Embracing this approach, however, means that you will learn faster and go further. It’s a great example of first-order negative, subsequent positive. That means the first step is the hardest and it hurts, but after that, you reap the benefits.
Of course, many of us prefer to tell ourselves that we have no weaknesses. That the world is wrong, and we are right. We hide our weaknesses not only from others but also from ourselves. Being open about weaknesses means being open about who we are in the moment. It doesn’t mean that’s who we are forever. But we can’t improve what we can’t see.
Many the people I talk to on our podcast have endured setbacks that seemed catastrophic at the time. Ray Dalio punched his boss in the face. Annie Duke lost millions. Countless others have been divorced, fired, or otherwise in a position where they felt unable to go on. I’ve been there too. It’s in these moments, however, that a meaningful part of life happens. Life is about what you do in the painful moments. The choices you make. The path you choose.
The easy path means being the same person you were yesterday. It’s easy and comfortable to convince yourself that the world should work differently than it does, that you have nothing to learn from the pain. The harder path is to embrace the pain and ask yourself what you could have done differently or better or what your blind spot was. It’s harder because you stop living in the bubble of your own creation and start living in reality.
The people who choose the easy path have a very hard life, whereas those who choose the harder path have an easier life. If we don’t learn to embrace being uncomfortable, we will need to learn how to embrace irrelevance, and that will be much harder.
Originally published by Farnam Street.