The Two Arrows: Productive Pain vs Unnecessary Suffering

A lot of things seem upside down in the world right now. Many plans or dreams are deferred, if not upended and we feel anxiety in the face of uncertainty. However, this is a core part of flourishing. In entrepreneurship and in life, disappointment (AKA pain) is inevitable. However, suffering, which drives most of our unhappiness, is not. Pain is essential to grow. We need to get outside of our comfort zone to shake us out of our ways, to develop new skills, move into new jobs or change our status quo. As entrepreneurs, nothing goes exactly as planned given all of the external factors involved. But, as Darwin wrote, survival does not go to the strongest but to the most adaptable. More importantly, if customers were not seeking a new way to address an existing “pain”, they would not buy our products or services.  In other words, pain is essential to a successful life and is critical to our productivity.

However, we needlessly turn pain into suffering. We can’t help ourselves. We obsess on the current disappointment and fight with the reality we are facing. We think about the situation over and over again without taking action. I’ve always said that we have crossed over to suffering when we stress over the fact on the third or fourth time in our head.  Byron Katie has a great quote: “When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100 percent of the time.”  Kristin Neff summaries this relationship up beautifully in one formula. The greater the resistance to reality, the greater the suffering. Think about this:

Suffering = Pain x Resistance (“this shouldn’t be happening”)

THE TWO ARROWS: Sages have been writing about this for thousands of years. In Shakespeare, Hamlet says “Things are neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” Buddhism talks about the two arrows. The first arrow is the disappointment that hits you. You can feel it and it fires up your fight or flight, your amygdala. However, this is just a flesh wound. The deep damage occurs when the Second Arrow hits…this is your interpretation of the event, the meaning you put around it and the stories that you begin to tell. Instead of reflecting on the first arrow, thinking through what actions can be taken and then taking action, we obsess around what just happened and begin to lean into why this shouldn’t be happening and what  impacts will come from it. The Second Arrow takes an opportunity for growth and turns it into an emotional tempest (a lost customer, an employee issue, a competitor lawsuit, a financing issue, a virus induced global pandemic, etc). What can we do to avoid the Second Arrow?

AMOR FATI: Nietzsche coined a phrase, pulling from the Stoics…Amor Fati: Love Your Fate. Don’t just accept it or put up with it. Don’t just like it. Love it…this makes me stronger.  As Epictetus, said: “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”  Use it as fuel to energize your (or your company’s) next chapter. Become better for it having happened. Never waster a Good Crisis. You will be kicking yourself later when you realize that everything went up for grabs during the chaos.

ACTION KILLS ANXIETY: When we are hit with change/disappointment, our initial reaction is to freeze, assess and over-process. This is where the Second Arrow comes in as we over-think and foster anxiety.

   Step One: accept what has happened and what is
   Step Two: calm your mind, reduce your fight and flight
           * sit with it, invite the reality in, what it is telling you needs to happen
   Step Three: ask “what do I want?”
   Step Four: layout your plan to reach this
   Step Five: find something small & simple and do it…take action.
                     Then another and another and another

CULTIVATE COURAGE: To do this, you need to lean into your courage. Courage is not being fearless. Courage is feeling fear, pushing through it and doing what needs to be done. Brian Johnson talks about the “Courage Quotient” to “face challenges with grace, connect with and inspire others, and be a force for good.”

   Part One: curb your fears…using mindfulness, CBT or other techniques
   Part Two: boost your ability to take action…start small and build

We will go into this deeper into Cognitive Behavior Therapy on a future post.  This is form of therapy that examines and challenges your belief sets causing suffering vs trying to understand and “fix” events of the past. There are several variations on this from classic CBT to Byron Katie’s “The Work”. 

A key part of CBT is to put your beliefs on paper, process and turn them around. Write several columns on a piece paper rotated lengthwise. On it, label each column with these:

  1. Situation: describe in one sentence your current situation
  2. Thought: list the thoughts that arise when you think of the situation
  3. Feelings & Intensity: list one word feelings & 1-100 intensity rank each
  4. Error Type in Thinking: describe each thought with the classic errors (Fortune Telling, Catastrophizing, Mind reading, Jumping, Overgeneralizing)
  5. Impact: How would you be without this interpretation or these feelings?
  6. Turnaround: list out alternative facts or explanation and Turnaround your assessment, describe the true reality

In summary, we all face disappointments daily in both work and personal situations. We legitimately experience pain from these. However, this can be the fuel for our growth. Instead, we go down a well tread rabbit hole and turn these opportunities into extended causes for suffering. Watch out for the Second Arrow and Amor Fati!