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!

Enough: Your Savior or Your Demon

My partner, Carter, has hypothesized “…that behind every driven CEO is a 6 year old child seeking its parents’ approval”. In these formative years, we start the dance with being enough (and feeling we aren’t enough). We create coping mechanism to deal with this discomfort whether it be over-achieving, addictions, Instagram posts, compulsive behavior, etc. All of this is focused on filling an unfillable void (which actually is non-existent & manufactured by our mind).

This is especially true for entrepreneurs since we live in a world that is scrappier and has fewer resources. Our companies walk on tightwires and strive to avoid Darwin’s grasp. Ironically, there is also an abundance of creativity, freedom to operate, ability to connect with each other due to small firm size, flexibility/agility, etc. So, at any point in time, there is both Abundance and Scarcity. The difference is our perception of “ENOUGH”.

The source of most misery, conflict, wars, addictions & other fun things stems from one of three phrases:

  1. I’m not enough
  2. There’s not enough
  3. It’s not enough

The CLG coaching framework has a great representation of this by asking people if they are coming from “above the line” or “below the line”. Above is abundance, trust, being enough and Below is scarcity, fear and not being enough. When we dip below the line, we begin to self-optimize, make decisions from a place of fear, bath in anxiety, think win-lose and are short-term oriented. Armageddon is around the corner. We cling to outcomes and, as our fight or flight over-rides our rational pre-frontal cortex, we begin to make crappier and crappier decisions layered on top of each other. We justify bathing in this survival mode by telling ourselves that “if we lose our fear, we lose our drive & risk extinction”.  This is a red herring. As Ving Rhames says in Pulp Fiction…”…you may feel a slight sting. That’s pride [ego] fucking with you. F@&k pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps.”

When above the line, we are more connected to others, we seek win-win, we make decisions from a place of confidence, we enjoy what we do, we are resilient, we make clearer decisions and we can think long-term. We can actually enjoy the ride and welcome the challenges.

The heart of entrepreneurship (or just being a content human) hangs upon our ability to be self-aware about being above/below the line and on our tactics/behaviors we deploy to self-manage “ENOUGH”. The trick is to catch the downward cascade early in its formation…otherwise, you are going along for the ride. You are going to get tumbled mercilessly in the undertow of the wave. There is an array of successful practices to do this. Here are just a couple:

  • Somatic awareness (body): we all carry our emotions in our body. Some carry it in their necks, their stomachs, their backs, etc. When you go below the line, where do you carry your tension? Use this “body wisdom” as an alarm clock and check in during the day. If you feel the tension in that spot, you are probably swimming in the deep end below the line. Stop and address.
  • Foundation: monitor/track how much sleep you are getting, how often you are exercising, what you are eating (sugar & carbs or healthy food), how much time spent with family & friends. If you erode your base, below the line is unavoidable. Working massive hours, sleeping 4-5 hours a night, not moving your body will result in the Covey “Dull Saw” (the lumberjack doesn’t take time to sharpen his saw because he doesn’t have time…so it takes twice as long to cut down the tree.)
  • Mindfulness: when you feel yourself tensing up, unplug and go for a short walk (or do walking meetings), jog stairs, sit/breath deeply & meditate (feel the energy in your body & focus on stilling it), call a friend.
  • Attitude Check: describe your current story to yourself (or to a friend/partner). Are you a victim? Are you bemoaning how you don’t have enough xyz? Are you bathing in the fact that you “aren’t enough” or up to the task? Is your environment out to get you…you are alone? Rewrite each line from the perspective that you have everything you need? If it was a hero story, what amazing thing would your hero do? Position the “challenge” as something meant to make you better (like lifting a weight).
  • Say Thank You: Brian Johnson has a great practice of saying “thank you” to what comes into his life…especially the shitty stuff. Say what? First of all, your ego/brain get confused and start to search for reasons why something is being “thanked”. It begins to rewrite the story. Second, it shifts your perspective to one of events being gifts. As he says, who would Hercules be if he didn’t have monsters and armies to battle? He wouldn’t be a hero…he would simply be a really strong, big guy who wasn’t growing nor whose mettle was strengthening.
  • Integrity Check: be clear on both your values (what energizes you) and your mission/purpose. Why did you start the company? What change in the world are you seeking to see? What would the “highest version” of yourself do? How do you want to show up on a daily basis? Then ask yourself: “right now, am I behaving in alignment with this? Is this fulfilling the mission & am I the leader I could tell my kids proudly that I am?” (the “kid” test).

“Anything that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”    — David Whyte

Our genetics are set for species survival so our Sympathetic “fight or flight” alarm clock has a hair-trigger sensitivity. We are programmed to feel “not enough”.  If we don’t consciously monitor this, we will swim deep below the line. We are each enough & have enough. 

Choice Is All You Can Control in Life

I was talking with a distraught, young entrepreneur whose week had been rough. He had a much needed prospect go with a competitor and an existing investor reneg on a promise to fund the second tranche of his commitment. He was making himself miserable, thinking about a) the potential failure of his business, b) the injustice of the unethical investor and c) the implications of this on his reputation & what he would have to tell his employees. I asked him how much value he was getting from revisiting these topics after the first time or two (very little) and if his choice to focus on them was the optimal path forward (was not)? I asked him what he had control over & what would help solve the situation the company was in?

“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.” – Viktor Frankl

The entrepreneur was going down the well-tread path of mistakenly focusing on external factors which he had no control over instead of internal factors which he did. We all seek to control our lives, to achieve our goals and to be happy. However, we confuse that which we can control with that which we can’t all the time. Even worse, we then attach our happiness & contentment to the results of these external factors. Lastly, we then bath all of this in stories & narrative…usually with a negative or victim theme to them. The end result is anxiety, disappoint, poor sleep and missed goals. If I had one piece of advice for my entrepreneurs, my kids and myself, it would be that:

Our choices are all we have control over. Focus all our efforts on this sole freedom: the choices we make in the space between stimulus/events and response.

Despite our desires otherwise, we have little control over our health, others opinions, our environment, our children’s behavior, our management teams, our competitors’ actions or anything else outside our mind.  We do have complete control over how we respond, how we interpret, how we act and what stories we tell ourselves…inside our mind.  We have control over a tight set of choices:

  • Values: what values & virtues to set as True North
  • Beliefs: what stories or facts we believe to be true
  • Focus: what to focus our attention on
  • Action: what action to take next
  • People: which people to reach out to or be with
  • Place: where to physically be

Do we choose to continue on our path forward as we planned or do we choose to let events derail us? Are we conscious of what we are choosing to believe or what stories we are creating or why we decide to do A instead of B or why we are spending time with Fred versus Sally? Or, are we letting these all occur on auto-pilot subconsciously like algorithms?

So, when life, whether as an entrepreneur, a parent, a friend or in a relationship, goes in an unexpected direction, you can let go/put down what is no longer serving you or you can let it drag you into the spin cycle. Ego and pride will cast an array of Oscar worthy storylines. Ask the question: “What is my play now?” Focus on five steps:

  1. Acknowledge the setback or loss
  2. Assess what choices you have control over (see above)
  3. Let go of all that doesn’t serve you/don’t control
  4. Determine you next action (what is my play now?)
  5. Take decisive action (“action dispels anxiety”)

As the famous Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, said:

 “In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, and the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.

NKC’s: How I Focus My Year to Create Impact

We all come into the New Year with a fresh start from the holidays and the hope to check off a host of resolutions that will make the coming year a success in some small or large way. While these goals are well intentioned, we often set ourselves up for disappointment in the way we frame them. They are a) not focused on key priorities, b) poorly defined or c) lack actionable steps to make them happen. But, this doesn’t need to be the case.

A few years ago, my coach, Brooke Vuckovic, coined and taught me about using NKC’s: No Kidding Commitments. These are not just rough intentions or resolutions that I hope to get to but a set of Iron Clad commitments which I make to myself (and her) that will be completed by the end of the year. I have slightly modified her approach and added a reflection step.

There are four parts to my process: 1) reflection on the year before, 2) a theme to guide the new year, 3) four to five No Kidding Commitments and 4) a set of actions for each commitment to ensure they happen.

Reflection: Before I can move forward with the new year, I want to reflect on the previous year and use this as a guide/baseline for the upcoming one. I use Reboot’s Reboot Your Year course/process which is simple and straight forward. You get an email with a quote and Koan (paradox/poem) to reflect on and a prompt to journal on for five consecutive days. They include reflection on:
    1) key events that shaped your year
    2) the personal growth resulting from these events
    3) things to let go of that no longer serve you
    4) envisioning what would make a successful year
    5) a letter of advice to yourself  
This is one of the simplest & most effective reflection approaches I’ve come across.

Theme: Next, I create a unifying theme for the year to simply and focus my attention. I choose a word and define what that word means in the context of the coming year.  Since 2019 held a significant amount of change for me and the barrage of ominous news seems unending, I chose the word “FLOW” as my core theme. Athletes know this as being “in the Zone”. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi defines it as being in “an activity, fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” I’ve defined it contextually for this year as being present (mentally), energized (physically) and open-hearted (emotionally) in all endeavours.

Commitments: After I choose my theme, Brooke has me lay out my No Kidding Commitments for the year. These are the uber-important achievements that will create the greatest impact and deliver the greatest amount of contentment in the next 12 months in the major segments of my life (career, family, service/impact, health, spiritual, finances/home, relationships). Each includes a statement starting with “I will…” and has a clear success state, such as, “I will sell my house and move downtown,” or “I will staff up the LA office and refocus my efforts nationally,” or “I will relaunch my blog, develop my voice and post at least 3x/week”.  The issue with traditional resolutions is that they are sloppy agreements without a logical result.  It’s hard to make progress against something like “I will be more healthy this year.” By setting tangible metrics for your NKCs, it’s easier to track progress and commit to results.

Actions: Once I set my NKCs, I will then put actions against them so that I have line of sight towards realizing each one. I create a project in Things (my task management app) for each NKC and list out the actions to take. For example, To relaunch my blog, I had roughly 10 tasks ranging from securing the domain name to hiring a design firm to setting up the Mailchimp service. I review these to-do’s every week, assess how I am making progress, and determine if there are any changes to the action plan needed.

Through this process, I’ve found I am much clearer on my priorities, accomplish what I set out to achieve and am more content throughout the year.

I’d be curious to hear what any of you do as part of your New Year reflection, resolution and planning process.

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