The Case for Discomfort: Harnessing the Power of Pain to Achieve Your Goals

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One day, I was skiing behind someone as he flew over an edge into a chute below. My immediate thought was ‘that was bold’ and when I reached the edge and looked down, my second thought was ‘uh oh, that guy is going to be in serious pain.’ He was tumbling down the run like a rag doll with pieces of gear flying off as he went. It was a yard sale worthy of a Warren Miller flick.

When I caught up to him laid out in the snow, he looked up at me, smiled and said, “Well, that was kind of painful but it was also kind of awesome!” He was obviously happy about not getting hurt and also pleased that he’d pushed himself to (or past) his limit.

All-time great Lindsey Vonn reached the top of the sport due, in part, to her willingness to push the edge of her ability and her limits. “You can go way faster in turns than people ever realize.” Courageous, for sure. Given her training load and injury history, she also had a massive capacity for managing pain. Had Vonn not been willing to be comfortable in fear and discomfort, she may not have set so many records. “You’re only limited to what you push yourself to,” according to Vonn.

But it’s not just courage or pain tolerance that sets leaders apart. It’s their ability to endure long periods in that state…to be relaxed despite what their minds and bodies are telling them.

In my own small way, I learned the power of harnessing pain tolerance while preparing to run marathons like Boston, Chicago, and New York City. Part of my training involved tempo runs — shorter than race distance at much faster pace. Unlike marathons, tempo runs are challenging from the first mile. I dreaded those sessions but they helped enable me to pass 6,000 runners and finish in the top 15% overall of the Boston Marathon. (Side note: I’m just a regular person so my result had little do to with athletic ability.)

I also learned something from those intense sessions that elite athletes know all too well. Discomfort manifests in physical and mental ways. And yet dealing effectively with both over extended periods is often what separates good from great or — to paraphrase my skiing friend — ‘oh sh*t!’ from ‘awesome!’

I believe the same factors apply to business as well. In an earlier blog post, I wrote that failure isn’t the worst thing to happen in business. Mediocrity is. Failure usually brings enough pain to spark change. Mediocrity often feels fairly painless and enables us to hide from taking action. Discomfort is a filter that some are unable or unwilling to push through much less confront by choice. Taking it on directly is often the difference between having a good idea and building a good business.

Jason DeYoung knows. The construction products sales professional was meeting at a job site when he saw a co-worker’s homemade solution to strap gear together. Within 18 months, DeYoung had test-marketed the product, found partners, secured a patent, won a hardware industry design award, received Walmart’s Made in the USA innovation honors, and sparked interest from a range of leading retailers. Put simply, he took an idea he saw in the trunk of a car to a product sold on the shelves of the world’s largest retailer in less than a year and a half.

But it wasn’t so simple. Amidst a lot of late nights, he marshalled on and figured things out. “I totally get why people don’t do this,” DeYoung said. “It’s really hard.” Today, his One-Tie is sold in Amazon, quotes about Home Depot, Lowes, Menards, True Value, and Walmart among others.

Yes, indeed, anything is possible and nothing is easy. Cliché aside, here are some ways to harness the power of the pain to achieve your own goals:

  1. Accept up front that it’s going to hurt. Why does that matter? Because if you fully expect the pain to come, you’re less likely to have the classic reaction which is avoidance. Discomfort is a given. Whatever you’re working on will be harder than you initially expect. By accepting the challenge, you’ll be able to channel the discomfort into finding solutions rather than avoidance.
  2. Recognize how that stress affects you. Self-awareness is a highly underrated quality. I used to work with someone whose hangry was known to all except him. We’ve all been around others who become emotional or short-fused when times get tough. If you can understand how you respond to stress, you’re a long way toward mastering it. The key is to separate how it makes you feel versus how it makes you act…or rather, how you act in response.
  3. Settle down. When I was starting a bike products company, I faced plenty of obstacles that were typical but frustrating nonetheless. Stepping outside was helpful. My short walks around the block were therapeutic…and also a chance to cuss up a storm without offending anyone. From my painful running workouts, I learned that if I could avoid tensing up then they were bearable. It was sort of like relaxing into the pain instead of fighting it. Find something that works for you to settle down so you can focus on the task at hand.
  4. Prioritize. Much of the pain that comes from starting or running a business stems from time and resource constraints. You’ve got too much to do, too little time, and not enough help. If you watch EMTs at work, you’ll see that (along with their medical expertise) they’re very good three things: staying calm, making quick assessments, and prioritizing. While few of us face life or death situations like EMTs, we could stand to learn something from their ability to choose what to do first.
  5. Know when and where to ask for help. Being a lone ranger comes with tradeoffs. You have control but maybe not everything you need to succeed. Few of us are blessed with mad skillz in everything…and fewer still recognize our own limits. Focus on what you do well and get others involved who have the ability to help. “I’m really good at prospecting and opening doors,” DeYoung said. “But I’m not an expert in finance, law, or marketing. I had to find help because I couldn’t do it myself.”
  6. Keep moving, no matter what. “We believe that excellence is the result of a journey, a journey taken by a committed individual, who begins the trip knowing her path will include a thousand failures. But the only real failure is the failure to get back up.” — Lindsey Vonn Foundation

There’s a reason why ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to open with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Anyone who’s accomplished anything notable can probably relate that their journey involved a fair bit of both. Accepting the pain — and recognizing its value — can help fuel the trek.

About the author: Michael Irwin. Drawing from his past as startup founder, executive officer of a $1 billion market cap company, public company CFO, VP Marketing, chief strategy officer, head of sales, and board member, Mike uses his diverse, mutt-dog like background to help companies grow sales and improve effectiveness. He’s also a community volunteer, youth soccer coach, author, and marathoner. And he crashes bikes, but not on purpose. Follow him at or connect at or on LinkedIn.

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