The Most Important Question of Your Life

The Most Important Question of Your Life

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Everybody wants what feels good. Everyone wants to live a care-free, happy and easy life, to fall in love and have amazing sex and relationships, to look perfect and make money and be popular and well-respected and admired and a total baller to the point that people part like the Red Sea when you walk into the room.

Everybody wants that — it’s easy to want that.

If I ask you, “What do you want out of life?” and you say something like, “I want to be happy and have a great family and a job I like,” it’s so ubiquitous that it doesn’t even mean anything.

Everyone wants that. So what’s the point?

What’s more interesting to me is what pain do you want? What are you willing to struggle for? Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives end up.

Everybody wants to have an amazing job and financial independence — but not everyone is willing to suffer through 60-hour work weeks, long commutes, obnoxious paperwork, to navigate arbitrary corporate hierarchies and the blasé confines of an infinite cubicle hell. People want to be rich without the risk, without the delayed gratification necessary to accumulate wealth.

Everybody wants to have great sex and an awesome relationship — but not everyone is willing to go through the tough communication, the awkward silences, the hurt feelings and the emotional psychodrama to get there. And so they settle. They settle and wonder “What if?” for years and years and until the question morphs from “What if?” into “What for?” And when the lawyers go home and the alimony check is in the mail they say, “What was it all for?” If not for their lowered standards and expectations for themselves 20 years prior, then what for?

Because happiness requires struggle. You can only avoid pain for so long before it comes roaring back to life.

At the core of all human behavior, the good feelings we all want are more or less the same. Therefore what we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire but by what bad feelings we’re willing to sustain.

“Nothing good in life comes easy,” we’ve been told that a hundred times before. The good things in life we accomplish are defined by where we enjoy the suffering, where we enjoy the struggle.

People want an amazing physique. But you don’t end up with one unless you legitimately love the pain and physical stress that comes with living inside a gym for hour upon hour, unless you love calculating and calibrating the food you eat, planning your life out in tiny plate-sized portions.

People want to start their own business or become financially independent. But you don’t end up a successful entrepreneur unless you find a way to love the risk, the uncertainty, the repeated failures, and working insane hours on something you have no idea whether will be successful or not. Some people are wired for that sort of pain, and those are the ones who succeed.

People want a boyfriend or girlfriend. But you don’t end up attracting amazing people without loving the emotional turbulence that comes with weathering rejections, building the sexual tension that never gets released, and staring blankly at a phone that never rings. It’s part of the game of love. You can’t win if you don’t play.

What determines your success is “What pain do you want to sustain?”

I wrote in my article last week that I’ve always loved the idea of being a surfer, yet I’ve never made consistent effort to surf regularly. Truth is: I don’t enjoy the pain that comes with paddling until my arms go numb and having water shot up my nose repeatedly. It’s not for me. The cost outweighs the benefit. And that’s fine.

On the other hand, I am willing to live out of a suitcase for months on end, to stammer around in a foreign language for hours with people who speak no English to try and buy a cell phone, to get lost in new cities over and over and over again. Because that’s the sort of pain and stress I enjoy sustaining. That’s where my passion lies, not just in the pleasures, but in the stress and pain.

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There’s a lot of self development advice out there that says, “You’ve just got to want it enough!”

That’s only partly true. Everybody wants something. And everybody wants something badly enough. They just aren’t being honest with themselves about what they actually want that bad.

If you want the benefits of something in life, you have to also want the costs. If you want the six pack, you have to want the sweat, the soreness, the early mornings, and the hunger pangs. If you want the yacht, you have to also want the late nights, the risky business moves, and the possibility of pissing off a person or ten.

If you find yourself wanting something month after month, year after year, yet nothing happens and you never come any closer to it, then maybe what you actually want is a fantasy, an idealization, an image and a false promise. Maybe you don’t actually want it at all.

So I ask you, “How are you willing to suffer?”

Because you have to choose something. You can’t have a pain-free life. It can’t all be roses and unicorns.

Choose how you are willing to suffer.

Because that’s the hard question that matters. Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have the same answer.

The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain?

Because that answer will actually get you somewhere. It’s the question that can change your life. It’s what makes me me and you you. It’s what defines us and separates us and ultimately brings us together.

So what’s it going to be?

(Photo: Florian’s Photographs)

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140 Comments

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  • Reply

    Ranjeet

    11 weeks ago

    Well kept. True that ‘No Pain; No Gain’.
    And your article motivates to take up necessary sturggle with passion.
    Thank you.

  • Reply

    Archie Manley

    11 weeks ago

    Most people want to go to heaven, but that don’t want to die to get there. The simple truth is most of us want the gain, without the pain. There is a price tag on every dream, and the question is are we willing to pay the cost.

  • Reply

    Eddie

    10 weeks ago

    Anyone who sees this as a “no pain, no gain” article is missing the point.

    Those articles are the “You just got to want it badlyyy enough” articles…

    Mark is being more open here. His point is just this:

    If you’re asking yourself “Do I Really want this?”

    Don’t think of the benefits, think of the costs.

    I want to get ripped because It’ll be cool to look great on a beach (Join the club!!!)

    I want to get ripped because I’m willing to push myself through workouts that are tough, doing the boring mobility/flexibility work, and actually enjoy calculating/timing my carbs and protein so that my hormones are optimally primed to get metabolism firing as it needs to. I love getting to bed at 9:30 too. (Well now we have nutcase, one who is going to look awesome).

    If you don’t want the pain, that’s fine, just be honest with yourself about it. You’re not a bad person if you don’t want to calibrate your meals, you just won’t ever get ripped.

    He’s not judging/condemning the people who don’t want the pain, but simply asking that we be honest with ourselves.

    • Reply

      Mark

      10 weeks ago

      Thank you! Lot of people seeing this as just another “no pain no gain” spiel, and it kind of drives me nuts. It’s much more nuanced than that.

  • Reply

    Andrea

    8 weeks ago

    Indeed, (although I wouldn’t agree with the construct ‘pain’) – and this is the perfect description of the human experience. Beautiful – all the way around! Thank you :)

  • Reply

    Erica

    8 weeks ago

    Thank you for a well-articulated article. As a health care provider who attempted a PhD, I realized the hard way that the ‘pain’ of patient care and teaching interns is much preferable to the ‘pain’ associated with academia. Career and school counselors should assign your article to their charges.

  • Reply

    Rafid Naoum

    7 weeks ago

    They say follow the ones that make you cry not the ones who make you laugh

  • Reply

    marty

    7 weeks ago

    What an inspiring article. I read it over and over again when Im felling down and it gets me going. Thanks Mark

  • Reply

    Audrey

    7 weeks ago

    What if you haven’t found anything worth the pain?

  • Reply

    Richard Ahlin

    5 weeks ago

    Wow Mark… This made me realize I need to give up a lot of things in my life, and I feel happy doing so :)

  • Reply

    Nissa

    4 weeks ago

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from my therapist when I was whining about hating my job, which brought me a good income but I didn’t like the actual work. So my therapist says to me “This is all in your head. If you’ve made a decision to stay but loathe every minute of it, then you have to find another way to look at it. Reframe the situation. Focus on the things you do like about it and it will be fine.” Well, I thought this was total psychobabble but I did it. Within just a few days my job was tolerable and I shortly grew to really appreciate what I had.

    I’ve learned to apply this to all kinds of situations. In the article, Mark talks about ‘what pain do you want?’ I have learned to ‘tolerate the pain’ by reframing the pain. This is especially helpful when there are some benefits to the behavior, but more benefits from a different behavior. I deliberately associate what I want with the behavior. For example, because I’m getting more in shape, I don’t eat sweets. When people offer it to me, I tell them (or just internally) “I want to be fit and healthy more than I want that.” Or when I’m getting up to exercise, I tell myself “I want to be fit more than I want to sleep – I am blessed with the opportunity to do exactly what I want with my life – how many people can say that?”
    It really motivates me, because it keeps me focused on what I want, keeps me in gratitude and I literally forget my objections to the activity, because I see it as a gift, an opportunity.

  • Reply

    Karina Carmen Velasco

    4 weeks ago

    I love your writing, but I don’t agree with this very much. Yes, we do have to work hard to accomplish our work and especially our true passions and callings. I have been a professional Flamenco Dancer for 14 years. Getting to this stage in my career took years of dancing, bloodied toe nails, some times they would become black under the nail polish on my toes and I did not know till the nail lady would take the polish off and scream, OH NO, what happened?! The truth is that although I have faced hunger, little pay, incredibly difficult competition in the earlier stages, family saying, no way, no artist in this home, later mean colleagues in dressing rooms, back stabbing from people who wanted to take my gigs or discredit me and so many other not so nice things, the struggles were always lined with joy, fulfillment, purpose, passion and most important a sense of belonging and doing something that made a difference in my life and the life of others. When I worked for a Television network in a cubicle I genuinely felt as if I was dying. And I was. And even today if I see a cubicle I feel queasy and nauseated. I also understand for some, the cubicle, paycheck and corporate health insurance brings joy. For me freedom and expression and working doing what I knew I should be doing since I began to walk, speak and reason is joy. The thing I don’t agree about this article is that suffering is not really what one feels when one is in the right place doing the right thing. Yes, being a professional dancer is a job. It has difficulties like all jobs, there is competition, there is personality differenced between colleagues, there is at times exhausting hours and days of travel between performances, of course work is work, but I can’t ever say that the bloodied nails or the exhausting rehearsals felt like suffering. They were the hard work, that leads to the release of the creative work. Not suffering, just work. If by suffering you meant, you have to work, then yes, but when you work hard and put in a lot into what you love, even when its exhausting it does not feel like suffering, it feels as if it has purpose. Now on the other hand, one hour in a cubicle is absolute and sheer horror!

  • Reply

    Leonardo Quitto

    4 weeks ago

    Hi Mark , great article , I strongly believe that we have to leave the comfort zone and sustain pain during all my life , that is what winners do , they keep up straggle through adversity and pursue their dreams. They are willing to sustain pain because they trust themselves and in his vision and they know that passing the roadblocks of live , soon they will end up achieving their dreams.

    Regards from Buenos Aires.

    Leonardo

  • Reply

    CPR

    4 weeks ago

    I think you’ve got a typo here: “People want to be rich without the risk, with the delayed gratification necessary to accumulate wealth.” Don’t you mean, “without the delayed…”?

  • Reply

    Radha L Nath

    2 weeks ago

    I agree mostly with this article…but not completely with this statement: “If you want the benefits of something in life, you have to also want the costs.”

    I don’t think you have to want the cost, I think you need to be AWARE of the cost and be able to handle the costs. It’s like saying.
    I really want to skydive, but I really want to have the possibility of malfunction where I could possibly die. That’s not true.
    I really want to skydive, but I’m aware of the risks… and I live with them.

    Other than that – great article as usual.

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