Suffering Is Optional

Posted Sep 05, 2018Suffering Is Optional

“Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.”  This quote has been attributed to the Dalai Lama, Haruki Murakami, and M. Kathleen Casey.  Identifying the first person to share this wisdom is less important than recognizing the inspirational nugget at the core of this simple mantra.

Success in life and in business takes focus and hard work.  Hard work may entail long days in the hot summer sun cleaning up hazardous waste sites or dedicated time at the computer solving technical problems and communicating with clients and business associates.  Most of my business days are spent solving problems and helping clients maintain (or return to) regulatory compliance.  The work does not do itself.  If I don’t dedicate my time and stay focused my work will not miraculously disappear.  

One of the ways I maintain focus in the business world is to train for and run marathons.  Knowing that I want to set aside the time to exercise helps me stay dedicated while in the office.  If I want to achieve my goal of finishing an event or beating a target finish time, I know that I have to dedicate time and effort to that end.  For most marathons I use a 16-week training plan comprising a base of long slow miles, mixing in speed work, spicing it up with regular hill repeats, and adding a splash of miles on the trails.  That is my recipe for a solid marathon.  That effort is the base investment I make so that on race day I am confident in my foundation.  But there is more to success than a strong foundation.

Pain.  Adversity.  Good old fashioned ‘hurt.’  Training for an April Marathon in New England means running in the dark and snow.  Training for an August event means heat and humidity and heat and humidity and a little more heat.  When the weather forecast calls for rain, I have two options; I can postpone that run or I can ‘embrace the hurt’ and test my limits by running in the rain (which feels like a relief after all the heat and humidity).  There is tremendous value in testing ourselves in adverse conditions during training.  We don’t control the weather on race day.  We don’t control the other athletes.  By training in all conditions, we can prove to ourselves that we have the ability to work through the pain and thrive.  We can solve problems in non-critical situations so that when race day arrives, we’ve already dealt with many of the road blocks that could be obstacles to success.

Smile.  Work can be hard.  Life can be hard.  Running a marathon can be hard.  It’s not a surprise that doing challenging things takes hard work.  However, we need not suffer while working hard.  By accepting the pain that comes with facing challenges and recognizing that pain is temporary and part of the process, it is possible to let the suffering slide right by.  Looking at thumbnails of mid-race photos, we can see runners and mountain bikers are deep in the “working hard” part of this trail race.  But there is one goofy grin. I was joking with a biker going the “wrong way” on the trail because he wasn’t participating in the race.  I don’t claim to understand the neurological benefits of smiling, but I know that taking the time to laugh, smile, or thank a volunteer makes me feel better.  And every minute I spend feeling better is a minute not spent suffering. In a marathon those minutes add up.

This is true in the business world as well. It’s easy to keep your head down, your nose to the grindstone, plugging away to meet deadlines.  But there is real value in taking the time to make connections with shared laughter and a smile.  Working hard to complete a challenging project is often hard work, but it need not be suffering.  Working hard with a smile on your face sends a message to everyone around you that you are in control and making progress toward success.  Relentless forward progress is a good way to run a marathon and a great way to go through life. 

Smile.  Suffering is optional.