A few years ago I stumbled upon Aaron Swartz's Raw Nerve series. All seven pieces are extremely good, but his idea in Lean into the pain of looking at mental pain as workout burn, especially, made something click in my mind that has stayed with me ever since.
It's an idea that's made so much difference to how I approach mental discomfort that I jumped at the chance to give a talk about it at the TEDx University of York Society's Mini Conference in November. Partly to impart some of the enthusiasm for doing scary things that it's given me, and partly to really solidify it in my own mind, I wanted to try and explain Aaron's idea in my own words, adapting his piece for the format of a talk.
Recordings of the talks are yet to come, but in the meantime, here's how the script turned out.
There are things that are scary in everyone's life: that essay we don't know how to start; that course where we're just completely out of our depth; having that difficult conversation with a friend. And the way we tend to deal with these scary things is either by procrastinating – putting them off until we can't put them off any more – or if we do face it, just thinking it as something to grit our teeth and bear, just something to get through. Either way, we feel pretty crap about it.
But what if there's a different way? What if there's a way to feel good when these things come up? What if there's a way so that we can actually feel excited when confronted by one of these uncomfortable events?
Now, before I go any further, I want to make it clear that this not actually my own idea. The original source is a piece written one of the co-founders of Reddit, Aaron Swartz. But it's an idea that doesn't seem to have got out there that much, and since Aaron is sadly no longer with us, I thought I'd give the talk in his stead.
So, the idea goes something like this. When you first start doing exercise – going to the gym, running, whatever – it hurts. It hurts while you're doing it. It keeps on hurting once you're finished. You get up the next morning and it still hurts. And initially, you think, “God, this is awful! Why did I do this to myself?” But for whatever reason you keep on going, upping the weights, running further, and…it still hurts. What changes, though, if not the pain itself, is how you come to see the pain. You notice the pain always comes after you've pushed yourself just that little bit harder. You come to see the pain as a sign that you're getting stronger. You actually start to enjoy that feeling of pain. It's not exactly masochism – it's not that you're enjoying the pain itself, it's that you enjoy what the pain represents: the fact that you're getting better.
And it isn't just a psychological thing. It's thought that one of the big ways that muscles do get stronger is actually in the process of healing the tiny tears that develop in muscle that happen when you load them. In healing those tears, the body overcompensates and builds more muscle, so that the next time you apply the same load the impact will be less. That kind of minor damage is actually the trigger mechanism for the body making itself stronger.
So we've established that we can come to enjoy at least some kinds of physical pain: that feeling of soreness after a good workout. But, now, the argument is: exactly the same idea applies to mental pain. Just as physical pain is a sign that we're doing something that's making us physically stronger, mental pain – fear, nervousness, embarrassment – is a sign that we're doing something that's making us mentally stronger.
Obviously, part of it is that you get better at doing whatever it is you're practising. You get better at writing essays, you get better at understanding abstract maths. But the more important part of it is: you get better at doing things that are scary. And that is a skill in itself. By repeatedly doing things that you're scared of, you get better at dealing with that fear.
Now, I read about this idea a couple of years ago, but I think I only really started to internalise it when I started going to salsa classes this year. I'd wanted to be able to dance for a long time, but I'd always been put off by the fear. The way I phrased it in my mind was, OK, I could learn to dance by going to salsa classes, but would all the pain I'd have to go through be worth it? But at some point I realised, really, this is a bogus argument. It's not a matter of learning to dance positive, fear negative. It's a matter of, if I go to salsa classes, I can learn to dance and I get better at pushing through that fear. It's win-win.
So I went. And in my first class, I managed to not only stand on my partner's toes, but also elbow her in the face.
It was fantastic. I came out of that class thinking stuff like, “Man, that was the most embarrassing thing I've ever done.” I felt terrible. But I realised, you know, it's a good thing I'm feeling like this. If I'm this freaked out, it's a sign that I've really pushed myself. I've really done something outside of my comfort zone. If I'm feeling this freaked out about it, it's a sign that by doing it anyway I'm really improving on something.
I kept on going, and six months later, I'm still embarrassed, every single class. But after six months of it, I realised I'm actually OK with that. I'm OK with being freaked out now. And since then there have been lots of other scary things in my life, and they're still scary too – applying for PhDs, writing essays myself for grants being an engineering student and not being able to write for crap – and, you know, giving this talk. But I'm OK with that fear now. It's kind of fun. And becoming OK with that fear really has just been a matter of practice.
So now I'm not going to just say, “Go and do more things outside of your comfort zone”, because I don't think it's that simple. You've got to build strength gradually. What I will say is: just watch out for that feeling of discomfort, of wanting to put something off – of that choice between the comfortable and the uncomfortable. And the next time you're faced with that choice,
Maybe that act of leaning into it is just enduring the pain of thinking about it for 60 seconds. Maybe it's just writing down a few ideas about that essay. For me it was just looking up what time those salsa classes were and putting it on my calendar. If the pain gets too much, give it a break. You can come back to it later. And each time you come back it'll be a little easier to face.
But whatever that act of leaning into it is, remind yourself that you're doing something you find scary, and feel good about that. Feel good about the fact you're doing something you find uncomfortable. You're running further, lifting heavier weights. You're getting stronger.Lean into the pain. That's where the growth happens.