Pain Tolerance

Often the people who win in life are not necessarily those with superior talent or intelligence, but those with an exceptionally high tolerance for pain.

Pain comes in many forms: physical pain, the emotional pain of rejection and failure, the pain of tedium—all of these have the power to hinder success.

I started thinking about this in the gym one day as I was approaching failure on a set, and I realized that what most of us call “failure” in fitness is not failure of the body, but failure of the mind. Because I’ve trained my mind just as hard as my body, I was able to overcome the burn and push a little bit harder.

Great athletes can tolerate high levels of pain. They live for it.

The same goes for great entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of pain involved in building a company. Financial woes, uncertainty about the future, social opposition—these things can really tear you down if you don’t have the mental fortitude to keep pressing forward.

Those who are most successful in dating and relationships are those who have endured rejection and unrequited love and nonetheless chose to keep trying. As Oliver Goldsmith so famously wrote, “Success consists of getting up just one more time than you fall.”

If you can train your mind to tolerate intense pain—or better yet, embrace it—you’ll experience untold advantages in fitness, in business, and in life.

When Breath Becomes Air

I’m deeply moved by Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a posthumously-published memoir describing the author’s quest for meaning in the face of his impending death.

Paul, an ambitious neurosurgeon, lost his hard-earned career trajectory to a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. After years of counseling terminally ill patients through their final days, preparing them to die, he suddenly found himself in their shoes. He now had to prepare himself to die.

In his eloquent prose, Paul explores his experience on both sides of the patient-physician relationship, grappling with questions of meaning, purpose, and direction. By the end, he had addressed not only what it means to die, but what it means to live. On his pursuit of medicine, he writes:

Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

Death is a reality for all of us. We know this, but in our youth and in our health it often feels like a foreign, distant entity, looming just far enough over the horizon to be of little concern. As Paul writes, there’s a subtle but important difference between knowing you will die and knowing you will die soon:

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

After the diagnosis, Paul faced the notorious dilemma of what to do with his remaining time, shackled by a series of unpromised tomorrows:

Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die—but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?

The book ends rather abruptly; as Paul’s wife Lucy notes in the epilogue, he died before he could finish the manuscript. But I wonder if there could have been any better place to close than this final paragraph, addressed to his then-eight-month-old daughter:

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

Paul Kalanithi’s life was cut tragically short, but his legacy will endure through this book, one final occasion to do precisely what he spent his career doing: helping people to cope with illness and mortality, find meaning in troubled times, and live and die with grace and integrity.


What do you want to be when you grow up?

As a kid, this question was always hard for me to answer. To this day, I have such a range of interests that no single label is sufficient to describe what I do—much less what I am or what I aspire to be in the future.

I guess that makes me what Emilie Wapnick calls a multipotentialite. What a word!

In this excellent TED talk, Wapnick explains why some of us don’t have one “true calling.”

Looking Ahead To 2018

2017 has been quite a year. Vox compiled a great summary of some of the defining stories of the last twelve months:

Yes, 2017 has had more than its share of bad news. But despite the tragedy, injustice, and political dumpster fires, of which we’ve had plenty, life is actually getting better for humanity overall. It often doesn’t feel like it, but it is—and this gives me hope for the future.

As 2017 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting and planning for the year ahead. I’m not a fan of vague “resolutions,” which are almost guaranteed to fail. Instead, I prefer to conduct a corporate-style “annual review,” where I set specific, measurable goals and then follow up and review my progress quarterly. (Chris Guillebeau’s annual review spreadsheet is a great starting point if you want to do something similar.)

My review for this year is complete, and I feel a real sense of clarity for where I’m headed in 2018. I’ve set a range of goals in business, productivity, fitness, finance, education, and even mental health—and I can’t wait to get back to the grind next week.

I hope you’re happy and safe on this New Year’s Eve. Let’s make 2018 a great year.

An Athletic Waffle House Christmas

I started my Christmas this year with my third crack at Jeff Cavaliere’s 400 Challenge, which is a timed series of 400 reps—100 inverted rows, 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, and 100 bodyweight squats, done in any order in as little time as possible. I clocked in at 8:34, shaving 46 seconds off my previous attempt.

After that I spent a few hours of much-needed quality time with my dad, and we discovered that one of the only constants in the universe is that Waffle House is always open.

I hope you had a very merry Christmas if you celebrate it, or a very merry Monday if not.

Shopping Has Changed

My Christmas shopping has finally come to an end. Interesting observation: this year I only made a single last-minute trip to a physical store—everything else was done online. The days of big crowds and long lines are over, for the most part. Even grocery shopping is on the way out, thanks to delivery and pickup services.

Retail is changing, and Amazon really is eating the world.

The Only Motivation I Need

When topics like goals and productivity come up in conversation, people inevitably start talking about motivation.

I just don’t have the motivation.

How do you have so much motivation to do all these things?

Motivation isn’t something I think about a lot—I’m more fond of its less sexy but more practical cousin, discipline—but I do think it’s important to have at least a baseline drive to keep you going.

And for me, that’s pretty easy. It all comes down to three simple words:

I’m gonna die.

That’s it.

One day, I will be on my deathbed looking back at my life, and it’ll be one of two scenarios: either I’ll be happy with the way I lived and what I was able to do, or I’ll look back with regret.

(Of course that’s not completely binary. We all have good times and bad times, satisfaction and regret—but I want to tip the scale as much as I can while time is on my side.)

This philosophy is more about urgency than nihilism. I know that I have a limited amount of time to do all the things I want to do, and that gives everything a sense of urgency for me.

I don’t want to wake up when I’m 90 and wonder where the time went. I don’t want to regret living on someone else’s terms, not pursuing my dreams, not spending enough time with the people I care about, etc.

I don’t need motivational YouTube videos or self-help books. My own mortality does the trick just fine.

Will This New Dining Set Fill The Hole In My Heart?

The number of ads I see in a day kind of pisses me off.

Have you noticed? Everywhere you look, somebody’s trying to sell you something. Every second of every day, from signs and billboards to direct mail flyers to the garbage in your Facebook News Feed, everybody wants your attention—and by extension, your money.

We enable this aggressive, nonstop marketing because we respond to it.

We think that buying random shit makes us happy. And it does, briefly. Until the next shiny thing comes along and we just have to have it.

Why do we chase happiness with our wallets?

I think in many cases it stems from a lack of satisfaction with our lives in general.

We think we can buy this cool new thing and our problems will magically melt away. Suddenly our parents will love us or our partners will stop cheating on us or our looming sense of existential dread will dissipate—all thanks to this new kitchen set we got for a great price at IKEA.

Many purchases can indeed be worthwhile, but research continues to suggest that excessive materialism makes us miserable.

It’s time to stop looking for fulfillment in dining sets or 60-inch TVs, and start looking within ourselves to mitigate the problem at its root.

It’s okay to buy stuff and enjoy certain luxuries, but those luxuries should merely complement a strong, independent foundation of happiness and security.

I’ve long been fascinated by Buddhist psychology and its emphasis on mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion:

  • Mindfulness is being present and aware in every moment, not distracting yourself with your phone or stressing about the future.
  • Gratitude is appreciating the beauty of life and being thankful for what you already have, not wishing you had more.
  • Compassion is empathizing with the struggles of others, genuinely wishing them well and helping where you can.

I’m far from perfect, but I’ve found that when I manage to maximize these three principles, it makes a far greater difference in my overall well-being than anything external like money or possessions.

That’s also not to say that money has no impact on happiness—though the evidence suggests the correlation between income and happiness ends somewhere around $75,000. However, I would argue that money’s impact on your happiness depends less on how much you make than on how you spend it.

If you blow every extra dollar on stuff, you’re unlikely to see any meaningful increase in life satisfaction. But, as has been widely reported, spending money on experiences can yield great returns.

As Dr. Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University told Fast Company:

Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.

Other research has found that spending money on others promotes greater happiness than spending money on oneself:

Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.

Materialism will not solve your problems, and browsing Amazon for shit you didn’t know you wanted will not make you happier.

Happiness comes from within. If you seem to be running into internal barriers, please take the time to address those—and don’t be conned by some ad that guarantees you’ll finally be happy for three easy payments of $19.99.

Modern Love

This article in the New Yorker is a satirical but alarmingly relatable commentary on the state of modern life:

This may be a bit forward, and I do want to take things slow—we don’t want to spoil a good thing—but do you want to come over to my place? We can cook or we can just do Seamless, whatever you prefer. I just want to get to know you better. We can listen to records in my room. I have some great old jazz LPs my dad gave me for occasions like these. We can dim the lights, sit back, and get comfortable.
What I’m really trying to ask is: Would you like to sit on my bed with me and check Twitter?