Pain and Gain

No, I’m not referring to the pretty terrible movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Mark (“The Stone”?) Wahlberg.  Neither am I thinking about the kind of chronic pain that a lot of us live with as we suffer injuries and deal with aging.  I’m thinking about learning through pain, and learning to embrace certain types of obstacles.

Why is it that the lessons that stick the most are often the most painful? When we are children we learn not to touch extremely hot things more than once.  From a work perspective, mistakes we make that embarrass, shame, or cause us to be removed from our positions in the worst case, are often the ones that shape our behaviour and that cause us to vow “never again!”.  Or to quote a certain president – “Fool me once, shame on .. shame on you.  Fool me … You can’t get fooled again!”.

There can be growth through pain, however.  In the case of physical exercise, muscles are broken down to promote growth; as a gym-goer for the last 25 years, hypertrophy has become part of my lexicon. The emotional and psychological pain we experience as a result of work-related failure is not something that causes hypertrophic growth, but it can lead to personal development in other ways.  It can, for example, build resilience.  Benjamin Franklin put it like this – “The things which hurt, instruct.”  This goes for both physical learning – “this is how far I can push my body”, “this is where the safe part of the path ends”, “these are things I should not do while carrying hot coffee” – but also for the mental and emotional learning that comes from experiencing pain from making mistakes in a work or societal context.  If we become “gun shy” as a result of experiencing pain, we may not take appropriate risks, because the possibility of failure (and the resulting pain) causes us to step back instead of forwards.

I’m currently reading “The Obstacle is the Way“, a book by Ryan Holiday, which is based on Stoic philosophy.  One of my colleagues gave a somewhat understandable snort when I told them this. As a title it feels extremely Zen, which can cause sceptical reactions.  There is some great life advice in the book, though, about treating obstacles (and the pain they can bring) as opportunity.  No significant obstacle is ever removed or circumvented without sometimes significant levels of pain.  It can be a tough sell for most of us to view pain as an opportunity, but there are great examples of people succeeding as a result of encountering and overcoming sometimes a lot of pain (psychological, emotional, and/or physical).

My favourite example so far is an anecdote about Thomas Edison.  I’m going to shorten it here, but essentially after a long day at the laboratory, Edison received news that his research and production facility had caught fire.  The sight was spectacular as a result of the chemicals stored in the buildings, and yellow and green flames soared sixty or seventy feet into the sky.  Rather than become upset, Edison excitedly sent his son to fetch his (the son’s) mother and all of his son’s friends, as they would never get to see a fire of this kind again!  He subsequently said that it was a great opportunity to clean out a lot of old rubbish – despite losing years worth of paperwork, designs, inventions and stock.  This represented a huge loss, estimated at the time at nearly $1m ($23m in current valuation).   Within a month Edison had the facility back up and running, and delivered $10m (~$200m c.v.) in revenue that year.  Edison embraced the pain of the loss cheerfully, and grew significantly from it.

I think Edison was so successful in recovering because he wasn’t afraid of the pain, and was willing to risk similar loss again by re-building from scratch.  He also put the pain into context – he hadn’t lost anything that couldn’t be replaced, like his wife or son or a close colleague or friend.

I think we need to be braver when it comes to pain of a certain type, particularly when it comes to work.  At the moment I’m personally pushing myself when I know failure is a real possibility, and pain could well result.  If that happens I’m hoping to be at least somewhat Stoical, and look for opportunities to grow from what I experience.

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