Conquering challenges requires understanding our relationship with pain

Here is an important question to ask, if we want to do anything difficult:

How do we deal with discomfort?

In the process of completing just about anything that is challenging and interesting there are going to be times when it gets painful. What’s our typical response in those moments? And how can thinking about our reaction in advance help when we do find ourselves in that position?

There are actually two components to this, and often we combine them or overlook one or the other.

Pain Threshold and Tolerance

To help understand the difference, consider a simple physical challenge where you have to hold a heavy weight above your head for as long as you can while trying to focus on something else, like watching a movie.

Pain Threshold

How quickly do you get uncomfortable and start to notice the effort?

When you first lift the weight the strength in your arms and back will support the weight, allowing you to focus on the movie. But when do you first become aware of the work you’re putting into this and start to be distracted by that?

Do you notice more-or-less immediately? Or is it some time before it starts to perceptibly hurt? What are the techniques that you use to delay that moment?

Your pain threshold (A-B in the diagram above) determines when the effort required becomes uncomfortable.

Pain Tolerance

How long can you endure discomfort?

As time passes, eventually you will reach the point where you are unable to continue to hold the weight up and will need to drop your arms. And the longer you last the more your muscles will shake and the more you’ll want to stop. But, how long can you delay that moment despite the difficulty?

Are you able to put the goal ahead of your immediate discomfort? Or, once you’ve passed the point where it starts to be painful, do you quickly run out of motivation? What are the techniques you use to prolong that time?

Your pain tolerance (B-C in the diagram above) determines when the discomfort forces to you to stop.

This x That

Most people are low on both dimensions. When doing something difficult they get uncomfortable quickly and soon after that they quit. But people who are successful have typically found a way to be remarkable on at least one of these dimensions.

Some people have a high pain threshold but a low pain tolerance. They are fine as long as the pain is not noticeable but crumble quickly as soon as it is. Like Wile E Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, who can defy gravity, but only until he looks down.

Some people have a low pain threshold but a high pain tolerance. They are somehow able to compartmentalise the pain, so that it doesn’t distract from the task at hand. Like a runner who when pushing themselves to the limit is quickly breathing through their eyes, but able to put that in a box in their mind and keep going when most of us would stop.

The ultimate is to combine a high threshold with a high tolerance. But, those people are extremely rare and generally recognised for the world class results they are able to achieve.

All The Things

This same idea can be applied to anything that’s difficult, including many things we do that are much more mental than physical.

Think about how we behave when we’re trying to learn a complex new skill - e.g. starting to speak a new language or playing a musical instrument. It helps if we can break the things that are hard into these two components.

How far do we normally get before we become aware of and distracted by the things we’re not already good at? (This is our threshold for learning)

And, when we encounter these difficulties is our instinct to stop, or do we continue knowing that it is normally hard? Can we stay focussed on the ultimate goal, which is presumably the reason why we started, or do we get overwhelmed by the frustration in the moment? (This is our tolerance for learning)

Or, think about how we cope with risks - e.g. starting a new venture, or investing our savings.

Where do we perceive risk? At what point in the process of exploring a new idea do we turn our minds to the risk of failure? Do we need to understand all of the possible concerns, or are we happy to start and see what happens? (This is our risk threshold1).

And, then once we’re aware of the risks we’re taking, how comfortable are we in the moment? Do we freeze and worry constantly, unable to act or become indecisive about what to do next, or can we continue to operate successfully while aware of the risks we’re facing? (This is our risk tolerance).

Keep in mind, our threshold and our tolerance might be very different depending on the challenge we’re facing. We might be highly risk-averse when it comes to our finances, but enjoy parkour. We might give up holding the weight over our head very quickly, because it feels pointless, but hike for miles even when our feet ache to conquer a particular track or catch an amazing view.


If we’re interested in self-improvement then it’s useful to think of these two dimensions as separate things to work on.

Our pain threshold is more difficult to change, as it tends to be physiological rather than psychological - i.e. more nature than nurture. But it’s not impossible. Like a mountain climber who stops at base camp while their body adjusts to the altitude, we need to invest the time until you normalise the situation and our response becomes more automatic. The sooner we start the better.

But, our pain tolerance is more in our head, and so much more malleable than most people realise. In her book Grit Angela Duckworth describes this with a simple formula:

Talents x Effort = Skill;
Skill x Effort = Achievement. 2

As she explains, our talents determines how quickly we improve when we invest time, but the effort we put in counts much more towards what you ultimately achieve.3

Increasing our tolerance requires a combination of keeping the end in mind (constantly reinforcing why we are doing this) and learning the techniques we can use in the moment to trick ourselves into thinking differently about our situation - e.g. remaining calm when our natural instinct is to get angry or flustered, or narrowing our focus to specific things we need to execute, when we’d otherwise be easily distracted by our environment.

If we work on both of those things, we’ll increase our overall ability to deal with discomfort and complete difficult things.

  1. This is often a function of the environment we’ve normalised. The classic example of this is the generation of people who grew up during the Great Depression, who later in life tended to stick to their views on saving and spending, even after the economic conditions had significantly improved.  ↩︎

  2.  ↩︎

  3. If you believe her formula then Achievement = Talents x Effort ^2 ↩︎

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