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Wisdom and Pain

January 3, 2018


Interesting Thought: What is Wisdom?


I recently wrote about the importance of having a firm “why,” or a sense of purpose, behind what you do. This week, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what connects meaningful activities across an entire life: wisdom.


David Whyte, writing in his book, The Heart Aroused, says that wisdom is “the only desire that is not fleeting.” In other words, if we set out to gain wisdom, to become wise, we’ll stand the best chance of being rooted throughout our lives, regardless of what life throws at us.


Whyte goes on to write that unlike personality, which aims to gain power over experience, wisdom lives in the soul, which gains power through experience. Cultivating wisdom, then, means being open to experience. This requires humility (i.e., I don’t have it all figured out) and presence (i.e., I am here now).


Wisdom doesn’t deal with planning or strategizing or setting goals; it deals with an attitude of growth and acceptance. This is not easy stuff. It means not deluding ourselves with rose-tinted glasses, not avoiding distressing situations, and not distracting ourselves from unsettling thoughts and emotions. It means making ourselves vulnerable.


What do we gain from this? Eric Greitens, writing in his book Resilience, draws upon the ancient Greek concept of “Phronesis” to define wisdom: “The ability to figure out what to do while at the same time knowing what is worth doing.”


Krista Tippett, in her book Becoming Wise, writes that wisdom “leavens intelligence, ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself…giving us the capacity to hold power and tenderness in a surprising and creative interplay.”


However much you might want it, wisdom is not something that you go out and get. It’s something that you are open to receiving. Often, it’s the experiences that you haven’t planned or desired that yield the most wisdom. You may not even know your gaining wisdom as you go through these experiences, and even if you did know that you were gaining wisdom, it wouldn’t make dealing with whatever you’re going through any easier. That’s OK. When you’re going through hardship your sole focus should be on getting through. But know that there’s good on the other side.

And the flip side is equally true. If you're thriving and experiencing great fulfillment and joy, don't take it for granted or rush on it from it. Be there for it. Reflect on what makes it feel so great and how you can create more of it and share it. 


Do your best to move through life with humility and presence and all situations—good or bad—are opportunities to become wise. 


Coaching Corner: Pain as a Positive

In Ray Dalio's new book Principles, he outlines how his relationship with pain has changed over the years. Our default is to see pain as a negative, as something to avoid at all costs. Dalio, on the other hand, now views pain through a more positive lens. Pain has become a blinking light, an indicator that there is a valuable lesson to learn. To Dalio, pain signals an opportunity.

It's easy to brush this idea off as a meaningless mind-trick, or perhaps mere business-speak pleasantry designed to get us to embrace some negative aspect of life. But this subtle switch in how we perceive concepts can have a powerful effect. As a coach I get to observe this every day.

When people begin exercising, pain is to be avoided at all costs. We go to extreme lengths to avoid, or at the bare minimum distract ourselves, from the suffering that often comes with working out, whether that means watching TV or listening to music on the elliptical, or signing up for an energy-filled Soul Cycle session complete with flashing lights, thumping music, and enthusiastic instructors. All of these distractors are designed to take our mind off the pain and effort of what we are doing. And for some, they can be quite useful.

But as athletes progress in their journey towards mastering their craft, their relationship with pain and effort changes. They ditch the headphones, stop fearing the pain of working hard and instead, they start embracing it. Pain becomes a welcome friend that is providing them with vital information. It becomes a gauge on their car dashboard, informing them if they are working too hard or too easy or if they have enough gas left in the tank to make it through a full workout. As Shalane Flanagan, winner of the NYC marathon, said in a recent interview:


"When I start to feel fairly uncomfortable, it's all about embracing it and realizing it's inevitable...So if I'm uncomfortable, I usually know my competitors are uncomfortable. If they're straggling behind, that's kind of the time when I say I'm going to put the screw in. I can tell that they're either struggling mentally or physically. So I'm going to just push it and just see if I can break them."

Flanagan uses pain to her advantage. Similar to Dalio, she has a different relationship with pain then your everyday person. There's little doubt that both Flanagan and Dalio have crafted their relationship with pain over many hours of practice. They took a concept that is often seen as a negative and made it work for them. Whether it's in dealing with pain, failure, anxiety, or stress, it's worthwhile to see if you can take something that is working against you and make it work for you. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of a perspective change.


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