Part 4 of Aaron Swartz’s Raw Nerve series. Raw Nerve on read+reflect.
Exercise is painful, and if we set out to simply avoid pain, we’d never exercise. But we keep exercising because we know in the long run that exercise is positive and makes us healthier and whatnot.
That’s a big difference, because this long-term thinking allows us to push through the pain, and the pain almost becomes pleasure—when we encounter pain, we know we are getting better.
Psychological pain is like that too. Things we don’t want to think about, things we don’t want to deal with, the most important ones seem to be the ones we avoid since they’re painful. With those things, the stakes are high and we try to avoid dealing with them.
He quotes Ray Dalio:
It is a fundamental law of nature that to evolve one has to push one’s limits, which is painful, in order to gain strength—whether it’s in the form of lifting weights, facing problems head-on, or in any other way. Nature gave us pain as a messaging device to tell us that we are approaching, or that we have exceeded, our limits in some way. At the same time, nature made the process of getting stronger require us to push our limits. Gaining strength is the adaptation process of the body and the mind to encountering one’s limits, which is painful. In other words, both pain and strength typically result from encountering one’s barriers. When we encounter pain, we are at an important juncture in our decision-making process.
So, instead of avoiding pain, realize that it makes us stronger. And when we encounter pain, it’s another chance for us to get stronger. And when we push through pain, we’re getting stronger.
In agile software development, there’s an idea which is: if it hurts, do it more often. Used herein is the example of merging code in software, where two different people worked on it. If we leave it for last and procrastinate the merge, it’s a huge ordeal which cyclicly gets more and more postponed. Agile says: do it more often. And a hundred micro-merges is less painful than one mega-merge.
So, don’t run from the pain. What really makes us anxious is the important things that trigger a fight-or-flight response. Instead of running from the pain, see it as an opportunity to get better and stronger. See the pain as a long-term pleasure. Start small, and just think about what causes you pain at first, then figure out how to attack it.
Next time you start feeling that feeling, that sense of pain from deep in your head that tells you to avoid a subject — ignore it. Lean into the pain instead. You’ll be glad you did.
Leaning into the pain is an extension of the idea of getting out of your comfort zone. The only way that we develop is when we go outside our comfort zone. And naturally, like Ray says, it causes pain. But the pain should be an indicator that you’re really outside of your comfort zone.
This “juncture in our decision-making process” that we encounter when we encounter pain is essential: it is the fork in the road where we decide whether or not to go through with it all. When we feel a bit of the pain that accompanies the pursuit of the task at hand.
I’ve been trying to adopt this idea for the past six or seven months of traveling. I think that we have to have a balance of facing pain and enjoying pleasure, but we should be leaning in one direction or another. I picked facing pain. And here and there, now and then, I decide to go to that city that I’m a bit scared of going to. Do that 6-hour hike that I know will wreck me. Go and socialize when I’m not feeling totally there.
And it’s such a huge part of why I’ve been so happy with my travels: because those things that were painful to do have also turned into the most fulfilling things that I’ve done.
Pain is an indicator that something outside the ordinary is going on. When you’re pursuing something new, it indicates that you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone. And we should be making a habit out of recognizing when we feel this pain and accept it, and even let it push us forward.
In general, I think we should cultivate a habit of being more accepting of pushing forward. We don’t have to do it every second of every minute of every day—we lose comfort, which I think is important—but we should also make sure that we are actually regularly moving forward. And maybe then, if we do that, and if we lean into the pain, we can spend time becoming better people instead of running away from the important things we don’t want to face.