Sunday, August 4, 2013

Don't step back, step forward - why pain is good

First posted on Medium under similar title: don't step back, step forward.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it. - Yogi Berra

Our fears and our views

I love running hilly courses. I find it odd that even those who run regularly often express fear of running uphill. And those who don’t run assume that I prefer to run flat surfaces: “Oh, so many hills in that neighborhood! Where do you run?”

Why is that?

It is as if people retain the memory of the pain. The pain of huffing and puffing up a hill, the muscle in the legs tingling with unpleasant soreness as the lactic acid builds up. The burn in the leg. The burn in the lungs. Pain leaves an impression. It is nature’s signaling mechanism, a coping mechanism intended to preserve us from future harm. And we project this memory of pain. “You are running up the hill?” Implication of thought: ‘ouch, that sounds painful.’
“Your new idea is failing?” … ‘ouch, that sounds painful.’
Why do I like running hills? It is because of the perspective: literally and figuratively. As you rise up the hill, you can see more. There is a vista of the city or the valley below. And as you inch toward the pinnacle, there is an inner transformation that hints at other things in life like accomplishment, possibilities, pinnacles. (I suspect that such feelings echo what mountaineers feel, when they undertake to bag an untamed peak.)

View atop Pyramid Peak. Lake Tahoe to left.

On perspectives

In business school, we adopted certain common phrases that spoke to a position befitting a leader. Chief among these:
Let’s take a step back.
I am often heard giving advice to people: “take a step back” or “let’s look at the big picture” or “take a 50,000 feet view from the top.” Or some such platitude. Why? Because you feel that is what you need when you feel bogged down in the mud of conflicting stakeholders, or lost in the darkness of uncertainty. How often had I really given thought to what I was saying from the perspective of the person receiving that comment from me?

Then, recently, I had the experience of hearing it as an advice offered to me. I have many different thoughts in my head and trying numerous projects. I should perhaps step back and gain perspective on what I really want.

It stopped me. It really made me think. Is that true? What is my next step? What does it actually mean for me? Step back to what? Does it mean putting my different efforts on hold so that I can focus? But, that’s more like stepping forward, rather than backward. Is it to spend a few days not thinking about the current problems to let the mind tie the pieces together?

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steve Johnson suggests a technique for stepping back by recalling Poincare’s description of a “eureka” moment.
I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak … by the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions …
Henri Poincare had been stuck on a problem. According to Johnson, one evening Poincare took a break from the routine to go for a walk. It had apparently loosened the ideas that existed in Poincare’s head, literally let them shake in the head and bump into each other. That’s the process of serendipity.

Step Forward, not Backward

But both my reflection on words from a friend, and reading of Johnson’s book reminds me that there is actually no stepping back. Just as you go for a walk to let ideas progress, so you don’t step back. Instead, you step forward. For entrepreneurs, that might mean more focus, more persistence; not relenting to take in a bigger picture, but rather to dive deeper in search of new truths. It sounds painful.

When you are at a wall, and banging your head, it is painful. We are conditioned to avoid pain. Step back. Look where the fires are with a bird’s eye view. Maybe you should avoid it. Or maybe you should walk through the fire and see what’s on the other side. If only you’ll walk forward.

I have the experience of giving up on something. There was a mobile application I built with a friend called Voicegram. It was sort of a non-starter idea, and neither of us were mature or experienced to know it. Now we know. But, I remember saying of that particular project:
“Never give in, never!”

… citing Winston Churchill’s exhortation to the Britons under existential German attack. Never give in. But I did. We did. We gave up. And yet I never did. I am still learning and growing. And that pain of failing, of letting go of an idea and learning… of climbing a hill, feeling the burn … that pain is useful and vital for progress. It is the only way out of mud and out of darkness.

I love running hills. Maybe I’m dumb. But I love the perspective.

Chasing sunset

Of faith

Many things in life, as in entrepreneurship take faith. To trust that there is a better future, to have faith that our efforts will bear fruit. We fear pain and failure, but faith would tell us to be resourceful and look beyond the pain. Anything is possible, even for an MBA to break into tech as a programmer.

Important thing is to keep doing, to keep an open mind and not label and dismiss others, but to always learn and grow.  And that growth is not always linear. Just like life, one takes interesting turns and forks in the road.  I never thought I'd publish a book on Happiness, but I did.

Don't lose faith.  Step forward.

Further Reading

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