When I first started learning taekwondo (a Korean martial art), I was probably about 10 years old. After a few months of learning the basic principles, we were given some gear and told to kick the shit out of each other. (Ok, there’s actually a lot of strategy behind sparring, but when you’re 10, it’s basically just a battle of who-can-kick-each-other-most-in-1-minute.)
After years of piano lessons and art classes, this was it, “Finally! Now, THIS is what I call an activity!”. When I was 10, sparring was awesome. You just kicked and kicked, and once in a while, you made contact. It felt great. I was full of energy and I charged straight ahead every time. A few more years of that passed by. Then, at 13 years old, I got my black belt when I was 13 and I stopped training.
After a year or two, I missed it. I remembered sparring to be fun and free. I wanted to do it again. But when I returned to taekwondo 2 years later, it wasn’t the same anymore. I was now 15, which meant I wasn’t fighting kids anymore. I was fighting other black belts, many of which had hit puberty much earlier.
Suddenly, it was scary. It hurt. I mean, it probably hurt a crap ton back then too but now I was at an age where I actually felt pain. Every time I looked up to these monstrous girls I was supposed to fight, I could feel the pain coming before they even touched me. So now, instead of charging ahead with not a fear in the world, I froze and I dodged. Anything really, to avoid making actual contact.
I was scared of the pain.
And that meant I lost. A lot. But not only that, I got hurt a lot. I was bruised everywhere. I had sprained toes and swollen knees.
After a few tournaments of this, I was sick of it. So I buckled down and trained. I fought more in practice and slowly, but surely, I learned to love the pain. I began seeing pain as part of the experience, instead of a downside of it. It completely changed the way I fought. Instead of freezing and dodging, I faced up to my competitors. I accepted I was gonna get the shit beat out of me but I went for it anyways.
And you know what happened? I got hurt less. Now I could finish a fight with barely a scratch. I started winning more and getting bruised less.
Once I stopped focusing on avoiding pain, the pain stopped coming.
When I eventually quit fighting competitively, you know what? I missed the pain. I missed the bruised knees and swollen ankles. I missed the jammed toes and soreness every day. Pain became part of the experience.
I share this story because we go through most of our lives trying to avoid pain. We all do it. You don’t get too close to people, so they can’t hurt you. You never give anything you all, so if you fail you won’t feel incompetent. You distract yourself with Facebook and Twitter while working so you don’t feel the struggle of not understanding the material.
Instead of embracing pain, we try to see what we can achieve while avoiding the pain associated with the achievement. You try to get a super toned body while avoiding the burn of working out or the dread of going to the gym. You talk about writing a book but you avoid the pain of actually sitting down and writing it… or you might have to confront the fact that you’re a shitty writer. You want to be seen as thought leaders or grow a business without being told you’re delusional.
But avoiding the pain doesn’t make the pain go away. Mark Manson put it best in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F***,
“The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”
You might avoid having others hurt you, but you’ll feel lonely and isolated. You might not feel incompetent now, but you’ll feel it eventually when you realize you haven’t achieved anything meaningful. You might not have to struggle with the material, but you’ll feel like shit when you’ve wasted a whole day.
All the time and effort you’re going through to avoid pain is still putting you through pain, just a different form of it.
So just stop.
Stop avoiding pain. Run towards it head first with your arms in the air, superman-style. Embrace the pain because, when you feel it, it’s the world telling you that you’re doing something right.
Whatever pain you’re avoiding (and we’re all avoiding some kind of pain), look for it instead. If you’re avoiding emotional pain, be vulnerable and open yourself up in ways that give people the most opportunities to hurt you. If you’re avoiding physical pain, look for the workouts that are going to make you feel the damn burn. Share your ideas that people will probably call you delusional for. Throw yourself head first into that textbook you never understand and don’t let yourself stop.
Don’t just go for the road less traveled. Go for the road with all the thorns, all the sharp rocks and the sign saying, “DANGER, DO NOT ENTER”. Because that’s the road you really want to be on. That’s the road leading you to where you want to be.
What kind of pain are you avoiding? Let me know in the comments.
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