A few weeks ago, I was trying to explain the value of inflicting discomfort or “pain” upon myself to a friend.
She was puzzled.
This was understandable. It’s difficult to put into words, especially because the benefits are intangible and feelings-based.
But I’ll do my best here.
I described the freezing cold showers I often take. Most people shudder when I do this. A shower is supposed to be a peaceful and enjoyable endeavor.
But even the occasional cold shower can boost your immune function, reduce depression, and speed up your metabolism.
I also told the story of when I ran a marathon in 2020. During the last seven miles, my legs stopped working and it was possibly the most uncomfortable two hours of my life.
“Why didn’t you just stop,” she asked, befuddled.
Several reasons. Firstly, I ran it with my jacked military buddy who kept pushing me to continue, especially when I most wanted to quit. Without his accountability, there’s no chance I would’ve completed those 27 miles.
Secondly, I was excited for the sense of accomplishment of doing something I didn’t think I could physically do. My buddy and I both chugged a Coors Light after we finished. I hate Coors Light, and that was the best beer I’ve ever had in my life.
But the last and deepest reason is the crux of this blog post.
Pain ≠ suffering
Like most animals, we have evolved to see pain as a malfunction or as an alarm. We feel pain and our brains go, Oh shit, something’s wrong.
This is obviously a good thing. If a bear were to start eating you in your sleep, you’d want some sort of alert.
But over the many years of our evolution, as we’ve advanced societies and stepped away from battling the elements…many of us still make this association when it’s not necessary.
You’ve probably gone for a run or started working out only to stop a few minutes in. Why?
Because you didn’t like the discomfort.
Your brain assessed the situation, said fuck this, and aborted the mission. It declared that something was wrong. You might have even decided in your mind, I can’t do this.
But you certainly can.
Hypothetically, if I told you I’d give you $100,000 to complete an intense, hour-long workout, you’d feel much more capable.
Here, the action is the same. The pain is the same. The only thing that’s changed is your relationship to the pain. Which proves we can alter the meaning and power of discomfort.
When I’m running, the voice in my head tells me, “You have to stop. You can’t keep going.”
But then I just remind myself: It’s only pain.Nothing’s wrong.
But what does it mean?
To be clear, my friend wasn’t advocating for a purely pleasure-filled life with zero obstacles and zero challenges.
Her main question was: “Why do you make yourself do things you hate?”
In fairness, I have no idea how to quantify the benefits. I can’t say that I’ve made this much more money or I’ve taken this or that action.
But I can vouch for an increase in confidence I feel when doing difficult things.
If I can run seven, miserable miles with legs that don’t work, I can surely sit down and write when I don’t feel like it.
If I can stay under that freezing cold shower water when my fight or flight system is begging me to turn the knob, I can certainly take on projects that I feel unqualified for.
Why do I torture myself?
To strengthen my courage muscle—proving to myself that I can do things I don’t think I can do (or that I’m scared to do).
To reinforce the truth that although I’m in pain, I’m certainly not suffering…I might even be thriving.
When the Buddha spent a month under the Bodhi Tree pursuing enlightenment, he was challenged by the evil demon King Mara—bringer of death and desire.
Mara’s army rushed toward the Buddha, but he did not plea or run away. Instead, he placed his hand on the ground and calmly stated that the seat beneath the tree was his and that they were welcome to join him.
The sword of each soldier fell to the earth and turned into a flower.
The moral of the story? LSD was strong even in 500 BC.
Negative thoughts and emotions are omnipresent. For the vast majority of us who don’t plan on spending years training to be a monk…anxiety, doubt, envy, longing, depression…these are things we must battle with almost every day.
The problem is: Many of us approach these demons by vigorously wishing them away.
A few years ago, when I was struggling with suicidal thoughts and depressing episodes, I refused to take action until the demons left me alone.
But they’ll never go away.
As of right now, I’ve never been happier with myself or my life…and the demons are still around.
The only difference? I have a healthier relationship with them.
By following the Buddha’s example, by inviting the demons in for tea with open arms, they become laughably weak. Their swords disappear.
It’s analogous to when a bully is making fun of your shoes. The second you join her and start talking shit about your shoes too, her words become utterly powerless.
Today, the thing that brings me the most mental pain is my anxiety over money. It has crippled and even paralyzed me at times.
That’s my demon. I handle it in two steps:
1) Clearly identify the demon
Not in the Western sense of tracing it back to its source from some childhood memory. There’s validity in that, but in the moment it’s not my priority.
For this, I note each thought, feeling, and physical sensation.
• “I feel tightness in my chest.” • “I see images of me getting evicted.” • “I can hear the disappointment in my friends’ voices.”
By simply articulating each and every thought and feeling, I get a sense of clarity and lightness.
2) Invite the demon in for tea
This can take practice.
As stated above, the demon isn’t going anywhere. So you might as well become friends and get the most out of your time with him.
The obvious caveat here is that I’m not a therapist or psychiatrist. These are just strategies that have lasted millennia and can help you the next time a demon knocks on your door.
You can try to slam that door in his face, but he’ll just grow bigger and stronger.
Make him a cup of tea, and he’ll shrivel down in strength and size.
Simple advice I heard from a friend the other day.
It’s lovely because you don’t have to change who you are or pretend to be something you’re not.
It’s more like a ‘build your own character’ practice.
She said she loved the fact that her friend deleted Instagram because it was bad for her mental health. So my friend changed her own relationship with social media.
It got me thinking.
What are things people I respect do that I wish I did more of?
So I made a list in my Notes app. Here are the first three examples:
• Change out of sweats and into work day clothes to feel more professional and productive. • Get cheaper, more unique, and more thoughtful gifts for friends and family. • Actually go hiking and spend more intentional time in nature.
What about you? What do you respect in the people you know? How can you do more of those things in your own life?
• How will I find my next project? • Where do I find good clients? • Can I pay my bills next month? • How will I make this work?
I’ve had plenty of days where my financial uncertainty and stress has lumped itself in my chest in the form of physical pain.
But oddly enough, it’s all been worth it. Here’s why.
• I never count the days until Friday or the hours until the end of the workday. • No one tells me when to show up to work, what to wear, or how to act. • My schedule is crafted entirely by me. • PTO is not a thing. If I want to take a long weekend trip to visit friends, I can. • I can work wherever I want so long as I have my laptop and an internet connection.
Now, I’m not saying you should care about any of these things too. I know many people who would be an anxious wreck if they were in charge of their own schedule.
My point is: No matter what you’re doing in life, discomfort and sacrifice are unavoidable.
The question you need to be able to answer is: What discomfort or pain do I want to feel and what sacrifices am I willing to make?
• takes care of their health • does anything for their friends • works hard for the things they love
I think crafting and molding an ‘identity’ is great if it gets you to take action toward the things you care about. But on the other end, I find it to be totally poisonous.
Recognizing your strengths, weaknesses, and innate interests is a healthy practice of self-awareness. But tying yourself down to an identity can do some serious damage in the long run.
I’m not a person who…
• goes to the gym • is musical • puts themselves out there
We are not some concrete structure where the rules and foundations are set in stone. It may be uncomfortable to deviate and stretch our comfort zone, but once we’ve done it, by definition, we are no longer a person who doesn’t do that thing.
Fuck your identity.
Keep your identity small. “I’m not the kind of person who does things like that” is not an explanation, it’s a trap. It prevents nerds from working out and men from dancing.
Last night, I made a game-time decision to drive up to Philly to beat the snow and visit my friends for the weekend.
Three short lessons and I’ll have you back to the rest of your day:
1. Before you pack up the car, write a list of every item you want to bring on paper or in your Notes on your phone.
As you put items in the car, cross them out or delete them. This may feel tedious at the time, but it’s the only way to ensure you remember 100% of what you want to take (leaving or returning).
The same thing is true when you go grocery shopping. When I shop without a list, I always come back with more donuts than anticipated.
I made a list for this last-minute trip, but it was too vague. I wrote ‘Work Stuff,’ so I brought my laptop and notebooks. But I forgot my mouse and keyboard.
I’ll be fine without them, but taking six seconds to write those things down would’ve saved me the inconvenience.
2. Visit your damn friends.
There are only so many opportunities to spend memorable, quality time with the people you care about. Take advantage of them.
Take the long weekend. Buy the plane ticket. Pack the car.
It’s always worth it.
3. Have conversations with your friends with no phones in the room.
And old friend told me years ago, “When you’re with someone and they have their phone out in front of them face up, it’s basically a big fuck you.”
Some of you might get defensive when you hear this, but it’s true. It tells the person that they are not the priority. It says, I’ll give you my attention until I get a notification.
Look around the dinner table and see how many people have their phones out.
Unless you’re waiting to hear back about your brother in the hospital, put your fucking phone away when you’re spending quality time with friends. A few dives into your phone can completely upend a conversation.
Last night, the three of us sat and talked and caught up for three hours. Not one of us looked at our phones. It can sound corny, but this meant our only option was to look at each other and actively listen to everything that was being said.
99% of the time, you don’t need your phone.
Put it away. Keep it in your coat pocket. Hell, leave it in your car.
Yesterday, I went on an errand run in the morning.
I got my teeth cleaned at the dentist and my car tuned up at the shop.
Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic, How to Wins Friends and Influence People, is quite archaic in its language (consistently referring to women as secretaries, etc.). But it’s a classic because of its timeless tips on how to conduct yourself in social and professional settings to more easily connect with others.
My favorite tip is probably the simplest:
Use people’s names.
You don’t have to be Donald Trump to love the sound of your own name. Everyone does.
Whether its your nurse, your server, or your mechanic…using someone’s name does several things:
1) It gets their attention.
When the two guys were walking around and fixing up my car, I used their names after reading their name tags. Before then, they were asking me routine questions without making much eye-contact. When I used their names, they would basically stop what they were doing and look directly at me.
When I was a server, whenever people would use my name (if they weren’t an asshole), I felt like I wanted to do more for them.
“Hey Dillan?” will always get more attention than “Excuse me sir?”
2) It shows respect.
When you use a stranger’s name, they will very often look pleasantly surprised—as if no one has ever called them by their name before.
This is probably because for most of us, we’ll meet someone, learn their name, and forget it completely after one or two seconds.
That’s because we don’t genuinely care to learn their name in the first place. But if I told you I’d give you $100,000 to go to the grocery store, meet 20 people, and remember all their names…you would do it effortlessly.
Actually using someone’s name—especially right after learning it—is a surefire way to remember it quickly.
Just don’t overdo it. I got pitched by a salesman last week and a typical sentence from him sounded like:
“Dillan, that’s awesome. And you know what’s so awesome about that Dillan…is Dillan, when you told me that…”
Dude, I get it. You know my name.
It’s obvious when people are doing it to appear respectful versus when they genuinely want to treat you like a human being.
Which brings me to the last benefit.
3) It reminds everyone that we’re all just a bunch of humans.
It’s very easy to go about your day and see others as nameless, faceless extras in the movie of your life.
But she’s not Dentist 1 and he’s not Mechanic 3.
Those are humans who have families, hobbies, and anxieties. Treat them as so.
It’s a great habit to get into. And you never know…you could make someone’s day.
After hitting rock bottom at 23, I converted to a religion practiced by millions of ambitious individuals around the globe: Self improvement.
Classic books. YouTube videos. Podcasts.
I was consuming hours of content a day in the hopes it would inspire me to build a better life…and it did.
Kind of. Let me explain.
Studies show that when you imagine yourself doing something in the future—exercising, being super productive, writing for hours—the same parts of your brain light up as when you’re imagining someone else entirely.
This is why we’re so confident that we can make a change or build a habit before we actually start (i.e. New Years resolutions). Then we sit down to write that first paragraph or run that first mile and our brain goes, Wait, what the fuck? You mean I actually have to do this?
And thus is the problem with self-help content.
It’s not that it’s all woo-woo BS (though much of it is). The issue is that it’s really good at making you feel energized and motivated. But energy and motivation don’t get things done; taking action does…Typically, it’s consistent, difficult, boring action.
You can read How to Win Friends and Influence People as many times as you want. You can internalize Dale’s lessons, laugh at the sexist 1930s language, and picture yourself at a bar striking up conversations with everyone you meet. That’s all great.
But nothing actually happens until you put yourself out there in social settings and apply what you’ve learned.
In other words: Anything you get out of self-help content is just wasted time or money if you don’t put it into action to make a change.
For two years, I read about 10 books on entrepreneurship. They inspired me to start my own business. They helped me think about how to be productive. Gary Vee yelled at me until I could imagine myself grinding away.
You can probably see what’s coming here.
“…helped me think…”
“…I could imagine myself…”
Nothing got done. No businesses were started.
Every time I sat down to try, I was overwhelmed by how intimidating and uncertain the tasks were. In my mind I was thinking, This isn’t nearly as glamorous as my imagination made it seem, Gary.
Of course, it’s important to get inspired. We all need to think. You have to be able to imagine yourself doing the things you want to do.
I’m not telling you to avoid personal development content. I just want you to avoid the mistake that millions of consumers—myself included—have made, and recognize that none of that content will do the job for you.
If you want to make a change, getting pumped up is 5% of the battle. The other 95 is you stepping out of your comfort zone and putting in the often uncomfortable work.
Eventually, I started my own freelancing business. But it wasn’t because I read the perfect book. It was because I stopped dipping my toes in the freezing cold water and just dove in. It was absolutely terrifying, but something was actually happening.
Action → Motivation → Results → Repeat
Whenever you feel inspired by something—a blog, a conversation, a book…don’t just stop there. Write down specifically how you’re going to use that inspiration or lesson in your life going forward.
That’s where real results and changes occur.
Knowledge isn’t power until you do something with it.
Regardless of what you have going on, we all go through unwanted periods where we feel stuck. In our work. In our relationships. In our bodies.
Aside from true mental health issues (which I know little about), this ebb and flow…this push and pull…it’s inevitable.
One strategy I use when this happens to me is a process I call trimming. Here’s how it works:
1) Eliminate the unnecessary tangibles.
The literal, physical objects you own. Chances are you own more than you need. Way more.
Schedule one to three hours on a weekend. Put on your favorite playlist. Go in your closet, room, and office.
One by one, take every knickknack, every piece of clothing, every dusty box…Rate how much it means to you on a scale from 0 to 100. If it’s anything less than a 90, get rid of it.
A helpful question to ask is, “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I pay to have it?” For many things in our lives, the answer is $0.
People often make serial killer jokes when they enter my space because it’s spotless and organized 100% of the time. But it’s not like I’m cleaning my room every day. I just don’t own enough stuff for it to ever get cluttered.
As cliche as it sounds, decluttering your space has an incredibly positive and immediate effect on your mental clarity. I feel like I have room to breathe when I spend my days in a clean and organized area.
One last note for the sentimental folks:
I’m not sentimental. I keep a shoe box with my favorite memories over the years, but that’s it. So I know I have my biases.
If you truly care about something, keep it. You don’t have to get rid of all your stuff; you just have to be honest about whether you actually get value from something, or you just feel it gives you value when you remember you have it.
Possession bias is real. We overestimate the value of things when we own them already and we underestimate the value of things when we don’t.
It may hurt in the moment, but the fear of not having something is always more powerful than actually removing it from your life.
Get rid of those shoes you haven’t worn in two years.
2) Identify the draining intangibles.
Toxic relationships. Limiting beliefs. Low ROI activities.
This step takes a bit more work because these are more ambiguous.
The key here is to capture the things that are draining you of your energy and work backwards to find their source.
I’m frustrated by my friend’s flakiness and lack of communication.
Why → It’s exhausting to be the only person in the friendship putting effort into it to keep it alive.
Why → One of my core values is communication and I feel like he and I see things differently on that front.
Why → Because I haven’t voiced my frustrations clearly and effectively.
Result → I need to set up a call with him to candidly express how I feel and find some sort of a compromise.
I procrastinate on the scarier things I need to get done to run my business.
Why → I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing and I doubt whether or not I can make it work.
Why → I’m not clear on exactly what actions I need to take.
Why → I haven’t broken down my projects into specific, actionable tasks.
Result → With each bigger, broader project, I need to break them each down into the smallest tasks possible so I am crystal clear on what I actually have to get done, step by step.
I feel unmotivated to do certain things I know I need to do.
Why → I’m almost always tired.
Why → I don’t get consistently good sleep.
Why → My nightly routine gets damaged because I often look at my phone the last hour or two I’m in bed.
Result → Set a rule: When I lay in bed to go to sleep, absolutely no phone use. I can only read or try to sleep.
Before you try to find the perfect challenge or set of practices to add to your life to make it more fulfilling, first eliminate any waste.
When someone has cancer, you don’t just pump them full of antibodies; you remove the tumor.
When a writer is editing their draft, they don’t just add better paragraphs; they cut out all the unnecessary ones.
When you’re going through a rut, don’t put more things on your plate; throw away all the nonessentials getting in your way.
Put in the work now to make things easier for yourself going forward.
A buddy and I were discussing our passions yesterday. Music and coding for him. Coaching and chess for me.
To mirror Cal Newport’s thesis in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, we both agreed that we didn’t begin to feel passionate until we got really good at what we were doing.
Many people think they have to have innate talent or aptitude for something for it to be their ‘thing.’ That’s nonsense.
My friend told me it took him two years to develop a love for programming. It was supposed to be a means to an end for him. He got good enough to land a well-paying job to support himself and his interests. Once he got good enough to quickly put pieces together and solve interesting problems, it became more than just a 9 to 5; it became exciting.
On a smaller scale, I’ve been interested in chess for the past year or so. Within the past month, however, I’ve experienced a serious uptick in my skill level. This has correlated to a spike in my interest. What was once a hobby is now a passion.
I’ve known many people who have sadly stated they are unsure of what they’re passionate about. This is tough, but there is a formula to solve this problem:
1) Try a shit ton of things→
2) Ditch the things that feel like pulling teeth→
3) Practice the thing(s) you like most every week→
4) Get really fucking good at it→
5) Boom. You now have a passion.
It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen quickly, but it is simple.
Whenever I spend a decent time away from work, I’m always itching to get back into a productive space.
I’m incredibly grateful for this.
I couldn’t imagine having a job where I’m counting the days until the weekend.
Actually I can….I did this for a few months and I quit.
Whenever I talk to my friends who have full-time jobs they don’t necessarily love, it always feels like I’m shitting on their life choices. That’s not my intention at all.
My stance: It doesn’t have to be your work, but every single person should have an activity or a skill that excites them—that makes them ‘itchy’ when they spend too much time away.
Studies show that people enjoy their jobs more when they spend more time outside of them doing things they love: tennis, writing, playing an instrument.
I recommend that your thing not be something passive like watching Netflix. Movies and shows are lovely and they should be consumed, but it would be much more fulfilling if you had an active practice that was totally your own.
What excites you? What challenges you? What skill do you love improving?
Do it. Do it all the time. Get better at it. Repeat.
• Poetry • Drinking more than one cup of coffee • Jazz • Classic novels • Card games
I remember forcing myself to listen to weird hipster music and painfully spending hours reading books I wasn’t enjoying. All the while thinking, You like this, you’re enjoying this.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t dig these things. I’m just saying that I don’t.
You should always keep an open mind and be willing to experience new stuff, but you can’t force yourself to like something.
It doesn’t matter how much your friend loves this movie. If it doesn’t resonate with you then it doesn’t resonate with you. No amount of explanation or argument on their part will bring you much closer to the love that they feel for it.
A good analogy for this is when I tell people I hate smoking weed—it makes me insecure and diminishes my social skills.
I always get the same response from marijuana advocates (Jesus I sound like a 60-year-old Republican):
You just need to find the right strain.
Yes. I need to keep experimenting with this thing that makes me feel miserable until I like it.
I could just do a little bit once in a blue moon to the extent to which I’m comfortable.
It took me until I was 26 to come to terms with the fact that I simply don’t enjoy most classic novels. That’s okay.
I pick one up from time to time. But I never pressure myself to enjoy it (or even to finish it).
When I was in high school, I would literally play music my friends liked and I hated because I didn’t want to admit that my favorite bands were Blink-182 and Green Day.
Again, fuck that.
Life is too short to read books you hate.
You can be open minded and challenge yourself, but there’s no need to torture yourself with something just because other people love it.
Put on some American Idiot. Open your Harry Potter books. And don’t apologize for the things you enjoy.
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you fucking like something, like it.
For the last two years, I have scheduled nearly every hour of every day.
To some, this might sound robotic and insane. To me, it has provided a structure that allows me to get everything done that’s important to me.
I’ve been pretty sick the past few days, so I’ve said fuck it to my usual scheduling routine.
At first, this made me feel insecure and uneasy. The uncertainty of how I would spend my time was not fun.
Then, when I didn’t die, I realized everything would be okay.
When I recover, I’ll continue with my normal system. But this is teaching me the value of unstructured days off. It’s actually more fun to get things done on free days—because I don’t have to do anything. Everything I do is simply because I want to.