Pain for a Purpose
I was talking to someone the other day about the willingness of many millenials to leave jobs where the culture is bad or the expectations are unrealistic or confusing. We both agreed that, in general, we find it refreshing – and that we believe it will force many companies to think more deeply about how they operate and the cultures they create.
At one point, though, my colleague said, “But it can go too far. Sometimes you have to suffer – there can be a purpose to pain.”
I watched my immediate mental response: That’s not true – thinking that we have to suffer condemns us to suffering. But instead of saying that out loud, I kept listening and asking questions. After a few minutes, I thought I understood what she was really saying, and so took a stab at summarizing. “You’re talking about pain on the way to improvement, vs. just submitting yourself to ongoing suffering.”
“Exactly,” she responded.
Then she told me a great story about two senior executives she knew, both of whom had reputations as tough, sometimes difficult and demanding bosses. However, she went on to note that many people she knew felt their time working for boss A was very valuable, and said they’d work for him in the future, if they had a chance – while most people had really disliked working for boss B, and would never want to work for him again.
The difference? Boss A, while tough, demanding and undiplomatic (to put it mildly) really focused on developing his folks. His toughness was in the service of their getting better, thinking more deeply, being able and willing to embrace new possibilities. Under boss A, people grew. In contrast, boss B was tough because he could be; he was just mis-using his boss power. There was no gain from the pain.
And I think this is a lesson millenials need to learn (and one I see my millenial children and colleagues learning as they get older and work longer). Sometimes, you have to do things that aren’t very comfortable, in order to get what you really want. And if you bail at the first sign of discomfort – whether you’re by yourself, trying to learn something; or in an organization, having to put up with some company BS; or dealing with a boss who may not be the most skilled or emotionally intelligent, but is genuinely trying to help you improve – you’re never going to get very far.
It’s analogous to trying to get in better physical shape, where the price is the bodily discomfort of sore muscles and the mental discomfort of feeling like a klutz. If you really want to get in better professional shape – to find out what you can love and be great at doing, and then to become excellent at doing it – the price is always some degree of mental, emotional, and even physical discomfort.
In other words: if you’re entirely comfortable, you’re probably not learning anything. And if you want to become world-class at doing anything, you’ll have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Read Be Bad First – Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future for more insights about being usefully uncomfortable.