It’s a phrase we have heard time and time again. “No pain, no gain” became a cliché within the fitness world, where people would convince themselves to push through discomfort and endure excessive training to achieve their targets. While nothing is wrong with this mentality if executed while understanding your limits, things begin to spin out of hand when the mantra is applied to other areas of life.
Let’s jump to the million-dollar question: Why are we programmed to think that we must suffer to succeed or create something worthwhile?
Our first contender is social conditioning. One of the first rules we are taught from a young age is that hard work is the fundamental stepping stone toward success. Take the names associated with modern-day success and try to simplify their lives; many will say that Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk brought Apple, Meta, and SpaceX to great heights by making more sacrifices and working harder than the average person. Though that is far from the truth, and there is a multitude of factors left unmentioned, this is the watered-down version of success we present to children and condition them to believe.
Fear of failure
The second competitor is our fear of failure. No matter how frequently we quote failure to be the mother of success, let’s be honest: nobody wants to fail. In cases where we fall short, however, our immediate thought is that we didn’t push ourselves hard enough. When you are convincing yourself that you should be doing more despite having given it 100%, you become blind to your limits and strive for what is on the other side of the finish line. While there may be benefits to personal development in challenging your boundaries, adopting this practice as a daily habit can become detrimental for many reasons that I’ll discuss later.
Figures of success
The third point has to do with the people we select as figures of success. Be it coincidental or intentional, the names we often associate with success often have the element of suffering embedded in their stories. Take Vincent van Gogh, for instance, the renowned painter who battled his depression with swirls of colours. Or Beethoven, who continued to compose sonatas on his piano even when his hearing loss deteriorated. Or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had to persist through bouts of discrimination and obstacles to eventually become the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Even on-screen superheroes break their bones and dive into erupting volcanoes to save the world! Eventually, we come to ask ourselves: Who am I to achieve success without suffering when those who came before me have had to suffer through worse fates not of their own making? This line of thinking diminishes our efforts and makes us think that we must go through tantamount challenges to be worthy of our achievements.
The sacrifice myth
I believe there is also a less-discussed fourth contender: For most of human history, we have achieved collective success through pain. Every breakthrough or magnificent creation needed some form of sacrifice. The development of agriculture required backbreaking labour and significant physical effort. Behind every monumental architecture are thousands, if not millions, lost lives due to accidents and harsh environments. Industrialisation permanently changed how people worked, creating more hazardous employment and conditions with insulting compensations. Before vaccines can be engineered, millions will first have to meet their creator. People of specific genders or races have had to fight and are still fighting through unlawful arrests and tear gas for basic rights. And the wars. Let’s not forget the wars.
We take what we know of the world and scale it down to our individual lives, dissolving into a pattern, a cliché, a mantra. But just because a phenomenon has always presented itself does not mean it has to persist.
Why it’s harmful
This line of belief is harmful in the long run for several reasons. It leads to burnout, damages relationships, topples your work-life balance, and can even prove to be counterproductive. Dedicating yourself to “no pain, no gain” is akin to hitting the big red button that overrides your physical and mental limits. Many take this to mean they will achieve success at any cost, be it sacrificing their familial relationships or going without sleep for days. We end up listening to our minds so much that we forget to pay attention to our bodies. Without proper rest and pause, neglecting our well-being will only impede progress and slow us down in achieving our goals.
Euphemistically, one might call this drive or discipline; instead, it is an obsession with equating suffering to success, even when, in truth, one is the means and the other the end.
Changing the tune
So, is it possible to achieve success without suffering? Yes. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer booklet, here are a few pointers I can offer as someone who has once fallen for the “no pain, no gain” fallacy.
- First, understand that just because someone else had to achieve success through suffering doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to go through the same. We all have to endure distinct hardships and overcome different challenges. It does not do anyone any favour for you to conjure painful situations out of thin air. Instead, take the journeys of others as an inspiration and a recognition of any privilege you may have.
- The next step is to learn to recognise and respond accordingly to pain. In an era as desensitised as ours, it is crucial to distinguish between healthy discomfort that promotes growth and pain. When you have reached your mental and physical limits, take a step back and ask yourself if it is necessary to keep going — if your progress will truly be hindered should you seek some well-deserved rest.
- Last, and most importantly, establish a balance. Success takes time, and your suffering on the way there does not quicken the journey. Strike a balance between working toward your goals and taking care of yourself. After all, what’s the point of success if you’re not in peak condition to witness it?