Pain vs discomfort – two very different things.

Egypt Dec 2010 Akassia Swiss Resort 082
Halan was known as a lazy fish. A very, very lazy fish.

But then one day she floated idly into the gulfstream. The water was different, new, chilled. Exhilarating. Suddenly she wanted to explore, to move and to struggle, to find new places and push against the current.

On her first day she swam for fifteen miles against the current. At the end of her day, she found that her fins were weak. Her tail was aching. Her gills were gulping. She was completely exhausted.

The next day she tried feebly to swim against the current again but it felt like pushing through mercury. Every scale cried to stop and she listened. She ate, rested and she floated for a few days until she was ready to swim on.

For weeks she swam into ever-new territories. Her fins ached every day, and then a bit less, and eventually she could swim with no ill effects.

Proud of her new non-lazy self, she pondered the next challenge. What, she wondered, was up there?

And Halan swam up to the surface and out into the air.

Sudden knifing pain in her gills! Desperate flapping of her fins as they tried to get purchase! Blindness and dizziness and vertigo and woe!

Halan splashed back down into the water where she could breathe and move and see. Halan had gained no small measure of stubbornness in her months of traveling against the current, and she was determined to try again.

Blindness, suffocation, horrible flailing and panic! Aieeee!

Halan tried a third time to the same result. At this point common sense ruled and she tried to swim through the air no more.

Halan is smarter than many people.

The moral of the story

The very delightful Alison Gresik and I were having a conversation about this guest article I wrote on how I deliberately abandoned comfort in order to lead an interesting life, and she asked a very smart question:

You talk about embracing discomfort, but you also talk about how great work doesn’t need to be painful. What’s the difference between pain and discomfort?

To me, Halan demonstrates the difference:

Swimming against the current causes discomfort. (And awesomeness.)

Swimming into the air causes pain. (And no awesomeness.)

Doing hard and amazing and important work requires effort: moving against resistance, stretching old skills and growing new muscles. This effort is uncomfortable, like your thighs on the day after a workout. That discomfort is a sign that you’re improving.

Doing the wrong work causes pain: the effort is unnatural and forces you into damaging positions. This is painful, like your tailbone the day after you slipped on the stairs. (Get well soon, Abby!) This pain is a sign that you’re doing the wrong thing.

So, in short:

Pushing harder into discomfort makes you grow stronger.

Pushing harder into pain makes you grow weaker.

Here are the aforementioned glorious Alison’s thoughts on the subject. (She wrote a story too. And it’s a good’un.)

What are your thoughts on whether pain is always bad, discomfort always good, and if fish are more awesome than frogs? Tell us a tale in the comments!

If you’re looking to expand into more discomfort with your business, DIY Magnificence will provide the gulfstream to swim against.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Matlock-Photo

11 thoughts on “Pain vs discomfort – two very different things.

  1. Catherine, thanks so much for playing along with me on this topic. I think these two metaphors (the fish and the amphibian) are SOO helpful to keep us in our rightful habitat, pain-free.

    And it’s such a delight to watch someone frolic in her element the way you do 🙂

  2. I recently had the opportunity to go back to my old job in the oilpatch — they were throwing money at me, ya’ll. But I am not a stupid fishy, either. Back when the challenge was to see whether I could *physically* do the work, that was challenging discomfort. Now that I know I can do the work, it will be a matter of how long I can handle the misogyny and politics and gross inefficiency. And that is nothing but unending psychic pain. I wasn’t even tempted a little bit.

  3. Just like a good, challenging workout. You may be a little sore the next day, but it means you’re getting stronger, but if you push it in the wrong way, you’ll hurt yourself.

  4. well right on. i really like this story…and i am very glad Halan didn’t end up being snatched out of the air by a sea gull.

    a fair amount of thought really could be put into how to identify the right work and the wrong work. i like that the subject is an undertone in this story.
    the message here is simple, do work that makes you better. don’t do things that simply cause pain. the difference between constructive activity, and destructive activity.
    the message lying beneath the surface is that you have to identify what activity is constructive, and what isn’t.
    sometimes this can be tough, because not all destructive activity is as blatantly painful as suffocation. sometimes the destructive activity is actually the opposite….it SEEMS comfortable.
    like NOT working out. loafing on your couch is quite comfortable. but, you don’t grow from it. and in the end you are in pain from having no muscle mass, too much flab, low energy and respiratory issues.

    onward to growth i go. pushing through the discomfort…to try to find….more discomfort. 🙂

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