The Difference Between Pain and Discomfort

A reader had written in to comment on my post on commanding your body despite the pain with his own story of his time in the military. I asked him to share his story with me — and with you. So here it is – a great piece by Gund from New Zealand.

When I left school, as a know-it-all 17 year old, it was compulsory to enlist for a year. I had a Sergeant Major who pretty much resembled Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. He was a hard man whose mum never washed his mouth with soap as a kid. In retrospect, he was a misunderstood man and his oppressive regiment was not designed to break us down (although some kids did), but to make us exacting and predictable machines. He shared some wisdom with us over that year which pretty much shaped my thinking in terms of discipline.

Only for the first night did I think I would have trouble getting up at 5am for a full inspection in subzero temperatures. Only on the first day did I think there was no way I’d run a 2.4 before and after each meal of the day. If you are the kind of person who rolls over each morning and hits ‘snooze’ so you can throw away another 10 minutes of opportunity, this man had a practice grenade he would casually throw into your dorm to help you see the light.

In retrospect, although he didn’t say it, everybody was capable of everything with just the right motivation. If you failed, it was because you didn’t want it bad enough. And he was just the guy to make you want to succeed, no matter what. He didn’t wave a bigger paycheck, success or promotion in front of his platoon, such as the luxuries that are freely available to you now, his approach was the opposite – he would make you really want to not fail, at all costs. In his mind, there was no option but to continue, he lived on a battlefield and everybody was going to make it.

You are capable, he would imply, you just didn’t know it.

Every few weeks, we would take a Route March. This exercise is a full kit 25km jog into the arid countryside in 40deg heat with full battle pack. Before the march, he would pick out the weaker kids and drop rocks into their pack over and above the required weight. In his world, this was how the weak would learn to survive, this was how they became stronger. It is easy to see how, at the time he came across as a bully, but I know now, the way to be stronger is to work harder. The march was grueling to say the least, it was a torturous and slow day of pain. By the days end, my feet were blisters of blood and hate, my ankles would resent life.

The physical body heals in a very miraculous way, torn skin and muscle grows back harder and so it is true of the senses. We harden up when we apply pressure. As each route march came around, the whining grew less and the morale increased. Instead of surviving the march, we started to share the effort, helping each other along, swapping out heavier packs with the weaker kids, taking turns to assist the injured during the day. In Sgt. Major McRea’s mind, we had succeeded because we realised that the only way through was as a team of hard people, not a loosely organised bunch of TV dinner and junk food addicts. He had succeeded because we saw the light without him having to spell it out to us and becasue we learnt this lesson on our own, we would not forget it.

I don’t know who said “Pain is weakness leaving the body”, he may have worked with McRea at some point, my take-away from that experience was summed up by McRea after one of those marches where he said something along the lines of

There is a difference between pain and discomfort. Pain is watching your family being killed in battle, or losing a limb to a landmine. Your ankle hurts because you just ran 20kms with a full pack? That’s discomfort.”

When physical obstacles present themselves now, I just say to myself “this is not pain, it is discomfort”. Anybody can be idle and unproductive, anybody can watch TV all day and complain about the unjust world. Being mediocre is the easiest thing.

You dont like your life? You dont like your world? Be change. Make change; or suck it up! You are capable, how bad do you want it?

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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