Pain… A Good Thing

TEDx Tacoma 2018

One of the valuable components of having a time limit as a presenter is the fact that you have to prioritize what needs to be said. For TEDxTacoma I was given 9 minutes to give a message to the world. I’m obviously a huge fan of people taking radical ownership of their lives and I thought I might focus on that in the talk but then I thought to myself, “Everyone has heard that message before. Why is it so hard for people to get into the mindset of taking ownership?” What resulted was a realization that people are often steam-rolled by the truth. This is where big problems come from.

What are ‘Problems’?

What do I mean by ‘problem’? In the simplest terms, problems come when we are confronted with facts about our reality that defer from the stories we have created about our reality. The facts can surprise us in a positive way. When I signed up for the Military I knew I would be signing a 5 year contract. At that time I was $60,000 in debt. I had already done the math on how much money I would have to pay per month to be debt free by the time I finished my first contract. The story I had in my head was one of a long 5 year march to financial stability. When I went to sign my contract the recruiter informed me at the last minute that my enlistment came with a $38,000 sign on bonus. This was on top of the Military paying off my $22,000 in student loans (I declined the GI Bill). Reality was different from my expectations in a profoundly positive way. To be clear, this still presents a problem, albeit a good one. How do I handle the money properly? How does this new set of resources change my plans for the future?

This was one side of confronting a problem but my TED Talk was about pain because it’s the other side that we struggle with. Its when the facts skew to what we perceive as negative that the real problems come. The emotional fog that’s created when reality deflates the expectations created by our stories is where I believed I needed to focus. It’s when we realize our long held goals are going to be a lot more challenging to achieve than originally thought. It’s when someone we are very close to, disappoints us or breaks our trust. The range of painful emotions that arise from situations where the expectations created by our stories are not met … anger, sadness, depression, envy, apathy, loneliness, rage etc. These feelings can cloud our ability to reason. The ability to slow down and ask ourselves what emotional states are trying to tell us about ourselves in relationship to our environment, is powerful. It will help us formulate a new thesis (aka – story) about how to move forward based more on facts rather than false narratives.

What do I mean by ‘Stories’?

Let me take a moment to define Story and give some words that I use interchangeably with the word story. Stories are simply facts weaved together by assumptions. As I have said before, stories encompass the way we look at everything. It’s the mental framework through which we interpret life. Our thoughts, perspectives, paradigms, spiritual beliefs, ideas, expectations, narratives, hopes, dreams, goals, etc. come from our story. You could use any of these words interchangeably in my mind. I could say ‘perspective’ instead of ‘story’. However, the word story comes with a particular association that I believe is incredibly helpful. Stories have characters. When a story is written for Hollywood the story tends to have characters, a beginning, and end. By framing our mental models in this way it’s my hope that we are able to recognize the expectations we put on ourselves and others that may be unreasonable. Have you ever used the phrase, ‘Their behavior was so out of character…’. Is this person beginning to shift their story in a way that is helpful to them? Can we be flexible enough in our own story to allow people the room to experiment with who they are rather than who we think they should be? (Parents and Romantic partners should think deeply about that last question.)

Two Sides of the Same Story

Going back to military service, I was fairly naive about my enlistment in the US Army. Long story short, I was told by my Recruiter that I would be taught how to swim in Basic Training. I was signing up to try out for Special Operations Training and I knew I needed to know how to swim but as I said in the video, I didn’t how to swim. I thought that the recruiter was on my side and looking out for my best interest. I didn’t believe he had a reason to lie to me. When I got to Basic Training I realized that there were lots of people who had been offered Special Forces Contracts like myself. I also realized that we weren’t going to be taught how to swim. Eventually I learned that recruiters got a bonus for signing guys up for combat jobs whether we made it through Special Operations Training or not. We would still go to combat units either way. I enlisted with the hopes of being a medic. That didn’t carry a big bonus even though medics go to combat. He sold me on being a Special Forces Medic which meant a combat designation and a bonus for the recruiter, no matter if I failed out for being a weak swimmer. Me being me, I recognized the odds were slim but the water was definitely the biggest challenge. In my mind, if I would be taught how to swim then maybe I had a chance at becoming a Green Beret. I would not have signed up hadn’t the recruiter told me that lie.

I can remember the point in Basic Training where I realized that I had been lied to. The facts of my reality were clearly in contrast to my story. It was frustrating to have that feeling of being… a sucka. I got hustled. I got taken advantage of. He didn’t see any potential in me. He saw dollar signs. However, the skill I had learned as a kid was to use the pain to focus on facts and get creative. I knew I could read books about swimming and every military base has gyms and access to pools. I got immediately into problem solving mode and along the way I ran into a former Navy SEAL, US Army Combat Divers, and former Collegiate Swimmers who helped me learn how to be more confident in the water. I also had a few people keep me from drowning. By engaging the disappointment, openly acknowledging my naive trust of the recruiter, and acknowledging the fact that I needed help, I was able to overcome. Embracing the pain helped me take ownership of the problem. Yes the recruiter lied and I chose to believe him. Now, what am I going to do about it?

The pain is a good thing because it’s teaching me something. What do I need to do? What do I need to learn? Through reflection I can now shift into ownership. By taking ownership I can influence my perception of the current reality and the practical experience of my future reality. My tendency to do this came from consciously learning to chose growth from pain and suffering. If you want to get anything out of what I write this has to be your first choice. My approach to life’s challenges is fundamentally built on the idea that pain is an inevitable part of the human experience and growth out of pain is a choice we must make. It’s not a genetic trait. It’s not a gift that falls form the sky. It’s you versus you. It’s a decision that has to be made with every form of discomfort, disappointment, suffering, and pain in every part of life.

The Importance of Goals

In one way I was positively surprised by my recruiter with a large bonus. In another way I was let down by the same person with a blatant lie about the training I would receive. In either case my goals remained the same: I wanted to become a Green Beret, I wanted to pay off my debts, and I wanted to some day help others with my experiences. This is why goals are important. Goals help us to contextualize both the positive and negative experiences that we encounter on the path to those goals. The idea is to take all things and let them move you towards your goals. What to do with more money in light of my goals is a problem I have to solve. What to do about learning how to swim is a problem I have to solve. These problems and many others I encountered during my time in the service (both positive and negative) were nested in the bigger problems of getting out of debt, becoming a Green Beret, and starting my own business helping others.

Conversely, when we haven’t specified goals for our future we become subject to the changing whims of our environment. Perhaps being caught up in a social narrative (story) that isn’t of our own construction. I think this is part of why we see so much polarization in the world today. Left versus Right. Theist versus Atheist. Black versus White. Bloods versus Crips. Men versus Women. Gay versus Straight. Rich versus Poor. If a person isn’t spending time examining and developing their own goals, intentions, and stories it’s easier to be swept into someone else’s because we still try to make sense of the world and the pain we experience in it. Which means we seek out stories to make sense of the world even when we don’t realize it.

Chase the Truth

Now, one more thing… the thing about goals (and of course, our stories) is the fact that they are future projections based on quantitative and qualitative knowledge about our past and present conditions. In August of 2007 when I signed up for the service:

Goal: “5 years from now I want to be a Green Beret, debt Free, and eventually start my own Gym.”

Past: “I hated the desk jobs I had and I really enjoy fitness. I’ve wanted to help other people get in shape ever since I lost all that weight after high school.” (Qualitative)

Present: “I’m $60,000 in debt and I never want to be in debt again!” (Quantitative and Qualitative)

At that time, based on past and current information, I projected a set of future goals. My plans for reaching those goals had both facts and resonable assumptions. I created a new story to solve the problems presented by my goals:

Facts: I had lost 100 lbs and been through my own personal physical transformation.

Reasonable Assumptions: Most people struggle with their health while I’ve have managed to figure out how to overcome a huge barrier in my own health. Teaching people fitness in a gym environment will be the best way to share my knowledge and motivate people. After all, I love working out.

Of coarse, that’s not what ended up happening. Yes, I became a Green Beret and I paid off the debt. But the assumption that I would enjoy being a Personal Trainer and be able to help lots of people through fitness ended up being very untrue. The facts didn’t match my story. It was massively disorienting when I realized it because having a gym had been a part of my story for so long. By analyzing my experiences with training clients I realized that the real problem I was interested in was helping people become more resilient and better problem solvers (why this is true is a separate blog post). By this point in my life, embracing painful realizations and learning from them was a habit. Facing the truth about life had always proven to be the best way forward. In that, one has to learn how to have goals, chase them with a committed effort, and know when it’s time to pivot versus persevere. We have to be able to create our story and chase the truth that will prove our stories to be wrong.

This represents my thesis on problem solving. Today my question for you is not so much introspective as it is goal setting. What do you want your future to look like 5 years from now? Break this down by 4 sections: Health, Money, Relationships, and Career. This is an intimidating exercise for many people. Understand that this is not a prediction of the future (which, of course, is impossible). This is setting an intention so we can have an impact on how we experience the future. We’re not looking to be right we’re looking for the truth.

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