Pain of discipline vs pain of regret

 

clem-onojeghuo-5AkJFdDDNKg-unsplash.jpgThis is a little quip I ran into a few weeks ago on a podcast. It was a quick throw-away line, but upon further thought, it’s actually pretty profound. We run into pain and discomfort all the time, especially when we set out to accomplish something. It’s painful to hear the alarm going off at 5am, even more painful when you remember your alarm is going off so that you can wake up and hit the gym. It’s painful to call through that list of people who may or may not remember who you are, even more painful when you realize most of them don’t care. It’s painful to order non-milk-and-sugar-filled coffee drinks at your favorite coffee place because, you know, calories (do yourself a favor and don’t compare the calorie count of plain coffee and flavored lattes). It’s painful to learn a brand new skillset. It’s painful to bump up the dumbbell weight or add a mile to your run. It’s painful to block out time to write (my precise problem this morning).

I can’t speak for you, but my track record in dealing with these pain points is less than stellar. Often times I find myself wasting time avoiding pain, or settling for an easier path instead of attacking the pain. The issue is, when I avoid the pain of good things today I’m necessarily inviting the future pain of regret. There are a couple of things going on when I submit to my pain aversion: 1) I get stuck, it’s really hard to make progress without any pain. 2) I sacrifice integrity, whenever I don’t do what I say or even intend to do I’m out of integrity. 3) My identity changes, instead of a person who follows through I become a person who gives up. Tied up in all three of those is regret. If I can’t help myself when faced with tempting food, I’m going to hate looking in the mirror. If I never embrace the discomfort of making phone calls or block out time to write, I’ll face the severe regret of a fruitless career.

So which is worse? Embracing the pain of discipline or succumbing to the pain of regret? There is a right answer.

I’m not sure the art of discipline will ever get a lot easier, but it can’t hurt to recognize that the pain of discipline is about a million times better than the pain of regret.

Quitter

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We hate quitting. Quitters are losers, quitters are weak, quitters don’t accomplish anything, you get the picture. We’ve even got some nice quotes, like “winners never quit and quitters never win” from Vince Lombardi, and “all quitters are good losers” from Robert Zuppke, and “when my car runs out of gas, I buy a new one. I don’t want to ride around in a quitter” from Stephen Colbert. Quitters may be losers, but those are some winning quotes, eh?

I’ve mostly bought into this quitting stuff over the course of my life, most of us probably have. It sounds awesome to never give up, to always achieve whatever you set out for in the end. It speaks to the unconquerable human spirit, the idea that we can do anything we set our minds to. Well, I’ve changed my mind, with the help of David Epstein and his awesome book Range.

Before I get too far I should make a distinction, there are different types of quitting. I’m not talking here about quitting in the sense that you’ve given up on life, or decided to live out your days in your parent’s basement, or stopped trying. Don’t ever quit only because things are difficult or scary.

What I am endorsing is a relentless search, an unwavering experimentation, a commitment to continually try things. This means quitting, probably a lot, probably in a lot of different pursuits. It means trying and failing quickly. Maybe it’s a project at work, maybe it’s a fruitless side-hustle, maybe it’s a crappy book. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to pull the plug. Not because you’re giving up, because you’re after something better, trying something new.

Epstein points out that success does not come from early specialization and simple grit (passion and perseverance in one area). Grit is important, and specialization can be too, but perseverance for the sake of perseverance is not helpful. “No one in their right mind would argue that passion and perseverance are unimportant, or that a bad day is a cue to quit. But the idea that a change of interest, or a recalibration of focus, is an imperfection and competitive disadvantage leads to a simple, one-size-fits-all Tiger story: pick and stick, as soon as possible” (Epstein, p 145). Counterintuitively, trying and changing are much more closely tied to success than blunt perseverance. Seth Godin, in his popular little book The Dip, notes that perseverance through difficulty is a real competitive advantage in business, but he also notes that perhaps the best advantage is knowing when to quit. The ability to walk away from something in pursuit of something better, to keep moving instead of persisting in stagnation, is a mark of success.

This all takes some wisdom, we need the ability to distinguish between a simple aversion to difficulty and a smart move towards better options. But here’s the important point stated positively: try things! If it doesn’t work out, or it isn’t what you hoped for, quit! Just don’t ever quit trying.

Create vs React

 

kelly-sikkema-JRVxgAkzIsM-unsplash.jpgThese are two words that you probably wouldn’t naturally juxtapose, but I promise it makes sense.
I’ve talked about actions and habits before, about how important it is to focus on tangible actionable things in order to move forward and affect change. Well, creating vs reacting is another helpful way to think about action, more specifically, what drives action. Here goes.
We’ll start with reacting because for a lot of us it’s more familiar, also it’s the lesser of the two options. A reaction is usually a response to some sort of problem or threat, it’s negatively sourced, something bad has or could happen, and you need to react to prevent it. A common phrase in the knowledge working world is ‘putting out fires,’ meaning problems constantly arise and we’re constantly reacting to solve them. A reaction doesn’t really move things forward, its main goal is to keep the status quo, keep the business functioning, keep the customer happy, etc.
Creating, on the other hand, is much more exciting. Instead of arising out of a problem or threat, creativity is sourced from vision and purpose. Creating is about solving problems before they show up, about creating solutions and possibilities. It’s pro-active action instead of reactive action.
Here’s a quick example: let’s say you’re working for a customer-facing firm who provides financial coaching and investments. Clients have been semi-regularly frustrated by poor communication from the firm, and your job has often devolved into smoothing things over with disgruntled customers. You’re a reactor. But, dissatisfied with this type of work existence, you remember why you’re actually doing all this: to serve people well with the best financial and investment advice in the industry. So if that’s the purpose, reacting to communications problems is incongruous with that purpose. What would serve that purpose? A system of communication and education designed not only to clamp down on the ‘frustrated customer’ problem, but to help customers think differently about money and themselves!
Creating comes from a different place (vision and purpose) than reacting (fear and problems). See, juxtaposition!

Change

 

chris-lawton-5IHz5WhosQE-unsplashGoals are important. But everyone has goals, including people who never achieve them. The great thing about goals is that they can be whatever you want them to be, you can dream big, swing for the fences, aim for the stars, or any other colloquialism you can think of. The downside of goals is that, for some reason, most people don’t achieve them, that they more often end up dreams.
What would cause a person not to achieve their goals? The problem is rooted in action. For most of us, our actions aren’t in line with our goals. Our actions, bad habits, addiction to comfort, fear of people, put us on a trajectory that is not easily swayed, and certainly not by some fanciful ideas.
So how do we adjust our actions? Unfortunately, in order to achieve goals, our actions usually have to change in a less comfortable direction. Discomfort is really hard to get comfortable with. It’s one thing to do something uncomfortable once, it’s very difficult to make it a long term habit. Change is super hard, and there are a lot of things to go into it, but I think there’s one especially important component: identity. Deep down in the recesses of your brain are you a fat person or a skinny person? Are you a hard-working person or a ‘laid back’ person? A tough person or a weak person? A happy person or a ‘realistic’ person? Your actions can actually help you answer these questions, because what you’re doing (eating too much, working too little, etc.) is directly tied to how you see yourself, to your identity. Here’s my suggested hack: look at yourself differently. It’s far from easy, but it’s a start.

The ‘wicked’ world

I’ve begun reading Range by David Epstein, I’m two chapters in and already suspect that it may be the best business type book I read this year. Epstein distinguishes between two types of domains: the kind, and the wicked. That sounds weird, but it’s a very helpful distinction.
A kind domain is like a game. There are constant, understandable rules and boundaries. Chess is a helpful example Epstein uses, it’s confined to the chessboard, there are unchanging rules, the game is always between two opponents, it’s a super structured and narrow environment. A person can develop superior aptness within a kind domain like chess by lots and lots of practice. Practice helps because the arena doesn’t change, you can rely on the rules and systems involved and learn to excel within them. Ideas like the 10,000 hour rule (which says a person will become an expert or reach mastery after 10,000 hours of practice) stem from this idea. Epstein argues that line of reasoning only applies within kind domains (golf, chess, music, etc.), but actually isn’t that helpful for most of us because the world isn’t kind, it’s wicked.
Wicked is the opposite of kind. Where kind domains are constant, confined, structured, wicked means that the rules are constantly changing, the boundaries are always moving, the terms are rarely the same. It means that hours of specialized practice is actually unhelpful because it entrenches a specific unattached way of thinking about the world. People who thrive in the wicked (real) world are adaptable, curious, able to bring ideas together, to look at the big picture, to think strategically. They try lots of different things, they have hobbies, they embrace varying inputs. Even most sports, while including some kind aspects, are mostly wicked. Children tend to do better by experimenting among many different sports instead of specializing in one early on because of the additional benefit of learning varying movements and strategies. The early specializers who find success (eg: Tiger Woods who excelled in golf, a more kind sport) are the exception, not the rule, and probably aren’t the people we should be emulating.
Today, the world is more wicked than ever. Specialized tasks are more and more handled by machines and computers. The ability to think widely has become more and more important. We all must specialize to some degree, we’ve got specific responsibilities, and specific things we need to get done. But don’t be afraid to experiment, detour, adapt, create, and read Range!