The other day, I was having coffee with one of the first people I would call a “mentor” figure in my life, and he casually mentioned something that triggered a slew of thoughts about what drives us to do the things we do. He was sharing some career advice with another friend, and said something like “as you move through life and choose various new pursuits, sometimes it will feel like you’re pushing a little against a door you haven’t opened before. The trick is to figure out how hard to push on that door, because once in a while it’s gonna give you so much resistance that it might be smarter to just try another door”.
We’re all familiar with the concept of pleasure vs. pain as it relates to being happy or motivated, but we tend to frame it in a rather simplistic Tasers and Candy kind of way, only looking at the extreme ends of the spectrum, where there is either genuine suffering or hedonistic gratification. But the fact is (in my opinion anyway) that something that is much more fundamental to the choices we make in life than hunger, reproductive drives, and even this more extreme view of “pain avoidance” – is the idea of “discomfort avoidance”, and its friend comfort seeking. One term that describes these concepts is Hedonic Motivation.
Nick and I will be be touching on this in an upcoming book in more detail, but here’s the elevator pitch. The thing is that although we all probably get the “no pain no gain” concept on its coarsest level, we tend to overlook what the real purpose of that pain is in the first place. Pain and discomfort are warning signals to us that actually increase our chances for basic survival. Although we probably share the phenomena of escape conditioning with other animals – i.e.: “Ow, that fire is hot! I won’t touch THAT again” – what gives us a unique edge as members of the big monkey family is the fact that we are capable of exceptionally developed “avoidance conditioning”, to the extent that our parents can TELL us that fire is hot, so we don’t ever have to get third degree burns to find out.
So there’s that. But this idea of “discomfort avoidance” can be a powerful tool in another way, one that our tendency toward left-brain functioning steers us away from all the time. The left-brain version we lean on a lot comes into play with things like athletic pursuits or passionate entrepreneurial endeavors. It’s the knowledge that “this is going to hurt a lot, but there’s going to be a reward!” Where we fail to put this awareness to use ALL THE TIME is in personal relationships and careers. And it’s dead simple. Trust the way you feel! You know that visceral feeling of unease you get with some people? Maybe even your partner? Or that ongoing sense of deep unease you feel at your job? LISTEN TO YOUR GUT. There’s a really good chance that you’re putting yourself through a mental/emotional “workout” that isn’t going to give you a six-pack stomach or financial freedom.
Oops. I promised an elevator pitch. Here it is: if it feels yucky, it probably is. Try something different!