Want a Better Life? Teach Yourself to Suffer

From the moment we are born our lives are steadily improving. We are becoming stronger, more independent, more capable. All of this happens through learning. Lately it has been bothering me to hear so many people talking about the inevitable decline that comes with aging. I disagree strongly with this. I think the decline is the result of giving up. Of failing to continue the process. Of giving in to comfort. Of the end of learning.

Learning is a very misunderstood concept. For most of us it’s associated with books and lectures and sitting at the feet of a master. These are really only the beginning of learning however. True learning comes through practice. Through repetition of action to achieve a result. Through pain.

We understand this in the physical context. A professional athlete didn’t learn the trade from a book. Not really. It took hours of practice, repeatedly performing the same motions over and over again to perfect every nuance of the movement that gave them the opportunity to attempt it during competition. Then more hours of applying it in that new context. Hundreds of try-fail cycles, that allowed them to truly master the technique and use it at will. The best are those who can summon the intestinal fortitude to suffer thorough this regime. The ones who can push past the things they have mastered and force themselves to try new methods, knowing they will struggle, in the beginning. The ones who can get back up, one more time, after failing to get it right.

The greats of any sport are not the most talented. They are the grinders. The ones who dedicate their lives to their craft. Who sacrifice other opportunities to practice their art. The ones who are willing to accept the pain of repeated failure because they know that it will move them a little closer to perfection. They are the ones who are willing to suffer outside of the arena so that they can make their opponents suffer when they enter it.

Somehow, we don’t understand the concept as well in the mental realm. We assume that because we’ve read a book, or listened to a podcast, or read an article that we understand the truth of something. It is easy to repeat what we’ve consumed as truth. Real truth however is gained through action.

When we take something we’ve been told and apply it, learning has begun. In this context the pain is mental more than physical. It’s pushing past the comfort of the known and into the pitfalls of the unknown. It’s being willing to be wrong. It’s facing the ridicule of convention to blaze new paths. It’s taking personal risks for what you believe. It’s facing self-doubt with the courage of your convictions.

Nothing is truly learned quickly. Repeated failure, or the excruciating boredom of waiting for your efforts to bear fruit, can go on for months or years. Pressure from those who fund the attempt will mount. Supporters may desert you. Friends and family may appeal to you to give up your quest. Don’t do it.

No great truth has been discovered without struggle. No new thing is accepted without strong resistance. No great step forward was unopposed.

The ability to suffer is a learned skill. Exposure to discomfort brings adaptation. Even better, this is not context specific. Being able to suffer through a cold shower creates both a mental and a physical adaptation. Your brain learns that you will not actually die. Your tissues reconfigure themselves to become less sensitive. This allows you to push the envelope a little further the next time. Eventually you will be able to move on to ice baths or submersion in mountain springs.

This is also a mental adaptation. Your brain learns that you will not actually die and that you are stronger than your aversion to pain. It gives you confidence in your abilities. This knowledge spills over into other pursuits. Surely asking for a raise is not as hard as sliding into freezing water? The same thing applies to tests of strength and endurance. If you can survive a six minute round with a physically stronger and technically better jujitsu practitioner, you can handle a difficult contract negotiation. If you can manage a three day fast, you can say no to the holiday cookies pushed on you by vendors and coworkers.

So here is my challenge to you. Begin teaching yourself to embrace discomfort. Do something that scares you. Face a situation that you know will be difficult and do it anyway. The next time you are studying something, or learning a new technique, or grinding out a task that is a gateway to something special, when your brain starts telling youth its enough, that you can’t hold on any longer, tell it to go to hell and push past that barrier. Even just a little and it’s a win. Teach yourself to suffer on your terms and learn to live a better life.

I am addicted to learning about why. From nutrition to neuroscience and philosophy to behavioral economics I am always seeking to understand. When I am not completely immersed in the latest book to catch my eye or practicing Brazilian jujitsu, I am usually cooking for my wonderful wife, playing with my two beautiful kids or out running with one of our dogs.