For a long time, I was motivated by fear.
I studied hard for classes because the last thing I wanted to see was the word “unsatisfactory” in an evaluation. I was nice to everybody around me because I didn’t want people talking shit. I dated people who I knew would be secure, stable partners because I didn’t want any relationship drama. I only applied to familiar, safe places for jobs because I didn’t think I was qualified to work at the really cool companies. I was careful not to reveal any controversial political beliefs because I didn’t want to be challenged on my opinions.
Oh, I was ambitious — I worked my ass off — but I was also a scared little kid who was playing this game of life in a super conservative manner. I had grown up reading a lot of fiction and memoirs, and the characters in those books had gone through all sorts of shit that I, at a young age, decided I would never want to experience: I was never going to get fired. Nobody was ever going to break my heart. I was never going to be a “failure” in society’s eyes, because I was going to prepare myself and never get hurt.
I rolled my eyes hard as I wrote that last paragraph, not just because it’s true, but because it’s something I would have adamantly denied just a year ago. “Don’t get hurt” is a common piece of advice that parents give to their children; it’s one I took to heart until pretty recently. See, it wasn’t until pretty recently that I had the revelation that the moments of the worst pain and the opportunities for the most growth are one and the same.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you should go out and look for trouble at any opportunity. Making smart decisions is still the best way to go. All I’m saying is that a “smart decision” shouldn’t necessarily be one devoid of risk, potential failure, or other types of growable pain, and that when you do experience pain, don’t hesitate to turn it into an opportunity to become ten times better than the person you were before.
Unlearning “don’t get hurt” advice
A lot of us learn to avoid pain as children. This is something we must unlearn. I’m sure that most parents, when asked, would love to see their child’s character grow exponentially over absurdly short periods of time. Yet they still tell their kids, whether implicitly or explicitly, to “not get hurt”.
The reason so many children are told to “not get hurt” is because, while painful situations are vehicles of powerful growth, they break you down first, and the breaking-down phase is not pleasant. You’ll feel like you stepped backwards and are regressing; you’ll feel like a failure, and sometimes you’ll want to stop trying altogether.
This is the “getting hurt” part that nobody likes. My mom has often remarked recently about how much I’ve grown up and how proud she is of me — it doesn’t mean that she would have wanted to see all the times I’ve cried in the shower or lay in bed awake at night debating the decisions I was about to make.
Your loved ones have good intentions. You do, too. Decide for yourself that getting hurt and becoming better is much better than not getting hurt at all.
Seeing pain as a gift and using it to your advantage
I like to think that I made a deal with the Universe to achieve my personal definition of success, no matter what, and that every unpleasant situation I go through is its way of teaching my stubborn ass lessons that I wouldn’t have fully understood second-hand. I like spirituality — but you don’t have to believe in pacts with higher powers in order to learn from your pain.
I really do think that if the beginning of this year had been easy for me, I wouldn’t have achieved nearly as much as I did. Every experience of extreme agony has been followed by periods of extreme growth. I believe the growth would’ve eventually happened no matter what, but I was able to benefit immediately by choosing to see pain as a gift. This way, I could avoid the long period of bitterness and cynicism that many people go through before becoming better.
Think about it this way: now that you have experienced something you’ve been trying to avoid for a long time, you can now let go of all the anxiety and fear about experiencing that thing, and focus on all the good things that the experience brought you. For example, if you got fired from your last job, you’re now free to pursue other opportunities that are a better fit for you, or finally take your side hustle full-time (and learn on the spot how to make real money from it!). You don’t ever have to pull extra-long hours for brownie points or pretend to be nice to your creepy co-worker ever again. Those are gifts all on their own; treat them that way and before you know it, you’ll start to see growth.
Learning from yourself is just as valuable as learning from others
I’ve read a lot of books and absorbed a lot of lessons from others — but I’ve also had to learn a number of lessons “the hard way”. I can say definitively that one is not “better” than the other. Just because a lesson has been learned countless times before by countless other people doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t benefit from having that experience, too.
Don’t believe me? Here are some common shitty situations that I’ve experienced personally and am all the better for:
Being publicly shamed
Getting rejected romantically
Having my character quality questioned publicly
Being emotionally abused by adults close to me
Getting fired for inability to complete work on time
Being cheated on
Being broken up with
Getting rejected professionally
Being betrayed by friends
Each of the above scenarios felt truly, unbelievably awful at the time. Every time, I felt like it was the end of something — my career, my reputation, my potential as a friend and partner. That wasn’t the case at all! Ironically, it was going through these situations and figuring out how to handle them properly that I became a better professional, human being, friend, and partner. And I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything.
Are you wasting your life by avoiding pain?
Really think about it for a while — what exactly are you gaining by avoiding difficult situations at all costs? More importantly, what are you losing? Do you want to spend the rest of your life, the only time you have on this planet, playing it safe and regretting not living more?
People in your life who tell you to avoid getting hurt mean well, but the decision is ultimately yours. You’re not here to be average or live a mediocre life — learn to see pain as a gift and take advantage of all the lessons the world wants to teach you. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll evolve. ♚