Discomfort

Conquering challenges requires understanding your relationship with pain

Here is an important question to ask yourself, if you want to do anything difficult:

How do you deal with discomfort?

In the process of completing just about anything that is challenging and interesting there are going to be times when it gets painful. What’s your typical response in those moments? And how can thinking about your reaction in advance help when you do find yourself in that position?

I think there are actually two components to this, and often people combine them or overlook one or the other.

Pain Threshold and Tolerance

To help understand the difference, consider a simple physical challenge where you have to hold a heavy weight above your head for as long as you can while trying to focus on something else, like watching a movie.

Pain Threshold

How quickly do you get uncomfortable and start to notice the effort?

When you first lift the weight the strength in your arms and back will support the weight, allowing you to focus on the movie. But when do you first become aware of the work you’re putting into this and start to be distracted by that?

Do you notice more-or-less immediately? Or is it some time before it starts to perceptibly hurt? What are the techniques that you use to delay that moment?

Your pain threshold (A-B in the diagram above) determines when the effort required becomes uncomfortable.

Pain Tolerance

How long can you endure discomfort?

As time passes, eventually you will reach the point where you are unable to continue to hold the weight up and will need to drop your arms. And the longer you last the more your muscles will shake and the more you’ll want to stop. But, how long can you delay that moment despite the difficulty?

Are you able to put the goal ahead of your immediate discomfort? Or, once you’ve passed the point where it starts to be painful, do you quickly run out of motivation? What are the techniques you use to prolong that time?

Your pain tolerance (B-C in the diagram above) determines when the discomfort forces to you to stop.

This x That

Most people are low on both dimensions. When doing something difficult they get uncomfortable quickly and soon after that they quit. But people who are successful have typically found a way to be remarkable on at least one of these dimensions.

Some people have a high pain threshold but a low pain tolerance. They are fine as long as the pain is not noticeable but crumble quickly as soon as it is. Like Wile E Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, who can defy gravity, but only until he looks down.

Some people have a low pain threshold but a high pain tolerance. They are somehow able to compartmentalise the pain, so that it doesn’t distract from the task at hand. Like a runner who when pushing themselves to the limit is quickly breathing through their eyes, but able to put that in a box in their mind and keep going when most of us would stop.

The ultimate is to combine a high threshold with a high tolerance. But, those people are extremely rare and generally recognised for the world class results they are able to achieve.

All The Things

I think this same idea can be applied to anything that’s difficult, including many things you do that are much more mental than physical.

Think about how you behave when you’re trying to learn a complex new skill - e.g. starting to speak a new language or playing a musical instrument. It helps if you can break the things that are hard into these two components.

How far do you normally get before you become aware of and distracted by the things you’re not already good at? (This is your threshold for learning)

And, when you encounter these difficulties is your instinct to stop, or do you continue knowing that it is normally hard? Can you stay focussed on the ultimate goal, which is presumably the reason why you started, or do you get overwhelmed by the frustration in the moment? (This is your tolerance for learning)

Or, think about how you cope with risks - e.g. starting a new venture, or investing your savings.

Where do you perceive risk? At what point in the process of exploring a new idea do you turn your mind to the risk of failure? Are you somebody who needs to understand all of the possible concerns, or are you somebody who is happy to start and see what happens? (This is your risk threshold1).

And, then once you’re aware of the risks you’re taking, how comfortable are you in the moment? Do you freeze and worry constantly, unable to act or indecisive about what to do next, or can you continue to operate successfully while aware of the risks you’re facing? (This is your risk tolerance).

Keep in mind, your threshold and your tolerance might be very different depending on the challenge you’re facing. You might be highly risk-averse when it comes to your finances, but enjoy parkour. You might give up holding the weight over your head very quickly, because it feels pointless, but hike for miles even when your feet ache to conquer a particular track or catch an amazing view.

Delta

If you’re interested in self-improvement then it’s useful to think of these two dimensions as separate things to work on.

Your pain threshold is more difficult to change, as it tends to be physiological rather than psychological - i.e. more nature than nurture. But it’s not impossible. Like a mountain climber who stops at base camp while their body adjusts to the altitude, you need to invest the time until you normalise the situation and your response becomes more automatic. The sooner you start the better.

But, your pain tolerance is more in your head, and so much more malleable than most people realise. In her book Grit Angela Duckworth describes this with a simple formula:

Talent x Effort = Skill;
Skill x Effort = Achievement. 2

As she explains, your talent determines how quickly you improve when you invest time, but the effort you put in counts much more3 towards what you ultimately achieve.

Increasing your tolerance requires a combination of keeping the end in mind (constantly reinforcing why you are doing this) and learning the techniques you can use in the moment to trick yourself into thinking differently about your situation - e.g. remaining calm when your natural instinct is to get angry or flustered, or narrowing your focus to specific things you need to execute, when you’d otherwise be easily distracted by your environment.

If you work on both of those things, you’ll increase your overall ability to deal with discomfort and complete difficult things.


  1. This is often a function of the environment you’ve normalised. The classic example of this is the generation of people who grew up during the Great Depression, who later in life tended to stick to their views on saving and spending, even after the economic conditions had significantly improved. [needs source]
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWctLEdIgi4
  3. If you believe her formula then Achievement = Talent x Effort2