No Pain, No Gain

We get out of the comfort zone.

December 31, 2017 • 5 min read

Unlike us, our ancestors were calorie-restricted. Just like cats, pandas, and almost all large animals, humans have evolved a strong natural drive to be lazy. In the wild, laziness is smart business – seeking comfort and reserving energy for the hunt is a winning strategy in a harsh world.

Millions of years later though, things have changed. We have more food than we can eat, sinfully cozy couches, and our troubles have evolved from finding enough coconuts to dreams of self-actualization. Meanwhile, our monkey brains still tell us that the most valuable thing we can do is curl up beside a fire with a jumbo bag of Lindt Balls and sleep for 13 hours.

Our instinctual drive towards comfort no longer serves us well.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time strategizing how to maximize comfort. I’d position my computer so I could play games near a heating vent, go to great lengths to avoid being outdoors, and find inventive excuses to avoid exerting myself. Surprisingly, I was not a particularly athletic child.

For example, I liked the idea of playing hockey, but there were a couple obstacles between young Allen and NHL stardom. For example, you may not know this, but ice rinks are awfully cold. Ice skates also pose a serious threat to comfort: if you lace them tightly you’ll hurt your feet, but if you lace them loosely you’ll hurt your ankles. In the face of such a dilemma, I would lace them half-tight. This approach ensured both my feet and ankles hurt, proving once and for all that sports are dumb and we’d all be better off at home under a blanket.

Whether I was attempting a sport, suffering greatly through one of Vancouver’s famously mild winters, or being subjected to the ordeal that is Phys Ed, I spent a lot of my childhood being indignant about being uncomfortable. This was rather apparent, so from time to time, an adult would try to upend my worldview with the pithy wisdom, “no pain, no gain.”

Oh, how I hated that phrase. Steeped in macho tough-guy attitude, it was toxic masculinity before I had a name for it. The idea that there was some sort of competition to experience pain was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.

The manly glorification of discomfort simply reinforced my slothful attitudes. I don’t need to freeze to death or crush my feet just to enjoy hockey – I’ll just collect hockey cards! I’m not lazy, I’m rational!

As a teenager I would seek schemes, sometimes elaborate ones, for how do the minimum amount of work, whether by automation or social engineering. I would calculate how much each assignment was worth in a class, what my target grade was, and determine the minimum amount of work I had to do to get the grade I wanted.

Basically, I was a little shit.

Many years later, I found myself revisiting learning how to play hockey, and found myself again staring down a pair of skates. Funnily enough, if you just lace skates tightly, and have a good attitude, it’s a non-issue. Your feet grow some little calluses where needed, but you soon associate any remaining discomfort with the satisfaction of skating well. If you focus on the end result, the discomfort becomes irrelevant.

Now, this is obvious to anybody who is into fitness. To a waifish programmer though, it was a blockbuster new thought technology. Overcoming discomfort is a skill. Shrugging off the frosty air while you take out the garbage is a talent. Posing uncomfortably until the photographer gets the shot they want is an art. Calvin’s dad actually had a point!

Discomfort, by its nature, is perceptual. There is a beauty to taming and controlling it. There is a way to find the joy in satisfyingly tight skates, the sharp winter air, or the soft burn of newly formed calluses. While I grew up thinking of comfort as a human right, I now see it as a blanket: good for bedtime, but often impractical.

While I still take issue with “no pain, no gain”, I must admit it’s catchier than “Discomfort is typically an opportunity for growth.”

So, as we assess the past year and consider the next, it’s worth thinking about discomfort. What habit could I start that would be uncomfortable at first but soon become routine? Is there an uncomfortable thing I’ve been avoiding that, once done, would reduce my stress?

It’s also worth thinking about comfort. Comfortable habits have a tendency to outlive their usefulness for recharging or relaxation. For the comforts you indulge in daily, consider: do I get an important boost from this, or am I spending 4 hours a day on the couch just because millions of years ago some monkeys couldn’t scrounge up enough coconuts? It’s a question worth asking.

Then, lace up those skates. Donate the rest of the Lindt Balls to the office kitchen, and go make 2018 a better year than 2017 – just slightly less comfortable.

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