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Which pain are you willing to embrace?

An alum of my leadership programme recommended an unusual book to me earlier in the year. Its title was a deterrent: it is called The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A ****. As this is a family newspaper, I won’t spell out the bleeped letters, but you get the gist.

It’s a strange book. The author, Mark Manson, is a blogger, and it is based on his very popular, very profane blog. Every page of the book is littered with the word asterisked in its title. If you are of a sensitive disposition when it comes to language, you won’t like it.

Yet despite its deliberatively provocative approach, the book’s contrarian philosophy is well worth a look. It asks you to stop being positive and to embrace negativity and adversity instead. Stop singing hosannas and accept the truth about yourself – that you are deeply flawed and dogged by fears and insecurities. Confront painful truths, don’t run away from them. Do this, the author suggests, not to fill your life with gloom; but to find the courage to actually deal with your life.

For me, one of the most compelling parts of the book was around this question: which pain are you willing to choose?

The question is not, please note, which kind of happiness do you want. That’s easy to answer. Some will say they want wealth; others want a great family life; some desire power and status; others fulfilment in their work. Many want all of those together. We can all choose our happinesses easily. What we are less good at is choosing the associated pain.

Do you, for example, want to be a senior executive in a large company? Do you want the corner office, the fancy limo, the top schools for your kids, the exotic holidays? You do, right? So now embrace the pain, too: the sixty-hour work-weeks; the kowtowing to your boss and board; the lack of time with your children; the stress of knowing you can be shown the door at any time.

Not for you, you say? You want to be an entrepreneur – a daredevil who takes risks and sets up his own business and most importantly, is his own boss? So then: are you ready for unsteady income for a long time, seeing most of your gains going to banks and taxmen, tension around every payday for your staff, and the persistent threat of failure and ignominy?

Are you a student who wants to get a first-class degree? Of course you do. The mark of distinction on your CV, the opportunities that may open up to you – it’s a no-brainer, right? But wait, how badly do you want it? Because here is what it will probably involve: the loss of your social life in your young years; a narrow focus at the expense of wider understanding of the world; coffee-fuelled relentless studying day and night. Still interested?

You want a stable marriage, you say? Very nice. A presentable spouse on your arm to go out with; companionship and understanding; the adventure and joy of raising children; a calming presence in your life? Aha, so you’re perfectly ready to embrace fidelity and look away from temptation; you’re ready to lose all your independence to become part of a couple; you’re willing to spend the remaining decades of your life with the exact same person – right?

What’s that? You screamed at the thought, and you want to remain a free spirit, independent and promiscuous and answering to no one? In that case you must be completely ready for loneliness, superficiality and lack of meaningful parenting too – right?

You get the point. Any choice we make involves pain, not just gain. Rather than gaze at the gains and happinesses we think that choice will bring, we must learn also to stare hard at the pain involved. All success involves struggle and unhappiness. Which pain can you sustain?

The truth is this: the people who succeed in the pursuits I have outlined here are the ones who can live with the associated pain. Those who embrace and accept and even enjoy the pain are the ones who make a go of it. Those who put in the hours on the machine get the chiselled body. Those who bear their relationships with patience and tolerance make them work. Those who can stand rejection and penury for long periods become the real artists.

If you want only the victory but not the struggle, don’t even go there. So, which pain do you choose?

(Sunday Nation, 10 December 2017)

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