Somewhere along the way, success became linked with comforts. Palatial houses, luxury cars, gourmet foods, the finest threads. All in the name of making us more happy or fulfilled. But they’re often simply modern-day salves, taking the sting out of an otherwise miserable life.
The path to excellence goes the opposite direction. We must embrace the natural suffering that accompanies progress.
Our favorite movies are two hours of struggle for two minutes of triumph. Interviews and biographies document years (or decades) of preparation and practice before a breakthrough. The success we see is only the tip of the iceberg, built upon layer after layer of cold, hard work.
Deep down, we know this truth. But we still fight it every time.
Acknowledge the pain, and proceed anyway.
It’s hard to hurt – or even anticipate hurt. It doesn’t matter if it’s physical or mental. The aversion is the same. We avoid it at almost all costs. In turn, we avoid progress.
The alternative is to befriend it, to see that the hurt simply identifies the path forward. Like a mile marker or a flashing light, it is simply a sign.
Triathlon training has taught me this lesson better than any other experience. Within every workout, my body is uncomfortable. Whether it’s the tickle of water in my nose or mouth, the anxiety of cars whizzing by, or the burning in my legs, there’s an urge to stop, to seek comfort. But if I can hang on – acknowledging the fear and choosing to endure it for a moment, something magical happens. I realize it’s okay. I can handle this level of hurt. I’m fully alive and alert, and I’m getting stronger.
The same is true for meaningful work: writing, thinking, planning, leading. The first few moments of quiet are brutal. I want to do anything but sit and focus. Everything else seems like a great idea: social media, email, checking in with team members, organizing my desk, washing tables poolside, folding towels. My mind races, urging me to just do something. Anything. The anxiety is just as painful as riding up a steep hill. And if I can manage to keep my rear in the chair or my feet planted for just a few more minutes, it gets tolerable. Again, I realize it’ll be okay. I can handle this level of hurt. I’m fully alive and alert, and I’m focused on something meaningful.
If I haven’t ridden my bike in a week, the anxiety is tremendous. I feel like my chest is in a vice, squeezing and preventing me from taking a breath. My hands tremble as I gear up and walk the bike out the front door. My feet slip as I clip into the pedals. The first block is awful. Every alarm bell in my body is ringing.
And then it stops. I feel the breeze on my face. I notice the details of my neighborhood. I wave at walkers. I see the sun rise or set. I realize that I know exactly how to do this, and I’m in sync with my surroundings.
Every day, we make a deposit with our lives – to the bank of excellence, or to the bank of resistance. There is no stasis – one builds, and the other shrinks. Build up excellence and we experience the benefit of momentum. Allow resistance to keep growing, and we have a mountain to climb before we can see excellence again.
The answer is to choose excellence – daily. Pick at least one battle, and fight it. Embrace a tough project, a challenging workout, the quiet of meditation, or an uncomfortable conversation. Choose and commit. Feel the pain of the resistance, and endure it. Fulfill your commitment.
Consider it a daily immunization against the disease of mediocrity. You choose to be excellent, every single day.
When you don’t encounter any pain, seek it out.
Eventually, the pain will be harder and harder to find in your normal day. Don’t stop seeking it.
Travel to a country where you don’t speak the language. Sign up for a marathon when you can barely run a mile. Volunteer for a project you have no idea how to complete.
Commit to a new challenge that will force you to grow in order to accomplish it. You’ll find some new hurts to endure, and soon you’ll have some new skills and strengths.
If you’d like a fun way to share your daily choices, join me in the Excellence Habit on Lift App. It’s a free and simple way to support each other and celebrate our daily choices of excellence.