Pain is essential to growth! It only hurts when you stop

Why do we go to great lengths to avoid pain when it often brings us our greatest accomplishments? I never won a sports championship without enduring years of pain, sweat and hard work.

Why do we teach our kids pain results from doing bad things? Hard work is painful and there’s a reason people become professionals in their sport/trade – they’re willing to do what others are not.

Why do our doctors automatically write us prescriptions when we complain of pain? We adapt to pain and pain is often our body’s adaptation process to handle larger workloads.

Why do we try to console those who complain of pain? Pain helps us appreciate joy even more. If you want to find the most appreciative people in the world look for those who have truly suffered.

I am a firm believer pain is my friend and with him comes opportunity. I believe that by seeking out those opportunities where pain is a guarantee (sales, Ironman, having 5 children), I am automatically positioning myself to succeed and weeding out those who are scared to test themselves. I believe that if I’m going to make an impression and try to be the best, utilize 100% of my talents, I have to put myself out there and accept uncertainty. One needs no more proof than to read Ernest Shackleton’s job post for his 1914 expedition to cross Antarctica, from Sea to Sea (see below). He had over 3,000 applicants and his journey is often celebrated as the greatest adventure of all time.

Make no mistake, his men endured unfathomable physical and mental pain, but not one of them died. I guarantee none of them would take back that experience if given the opportunity. Think about it, the things that we love and cherish the most required the hardest work and pain – sports victories, job promotion, marriage …. I don’t ever recall celebrating and bragging to others when an opportunity just fell in my lap as of no result of my efforts or another team forfeited. To the contrary, we all love telling the story of walking to school barefoot in the snow, up the hill both ways. Admit it, we all have benefited from past pain experiences and relish sharing those stories.

Pain as a prerequisite to opportunity

As someone who is no stranger to pain, I often seek out those opportunities and experiences where pain is a prerequisite. In one year I raced the World’s hardest Ironman, World’s Hardest Ironman 70.3 and World’s Hardest ITU Long Course triathlon. I’m not a masochist. I simply wanted to prove to myself that mentally and physically I had what it took to not only finish these events but also to be competitive and place in the top 10. Despite my best efforts, the best I did was 7th in the Ironman 70.3. In the Ironman, everything that could have went wrong did. I suffered migraine headaches the entire week leading up to race day. I lost over half my nutrition during the race and was urinating blood before I even started the World’s toughest Ironman marathon leg. Guess what? I ddidn’tquit and I finished. My marathon time was only 13 minutes off my normal pace (still sub 4hrs). I still celebrate this victory even though it was my slowest Ironman time ever. And the ITU Long Course event? On paper it was an utter failure. I finished 5th from last. But what my time doesn’t reflect is the fact I had to ride 35 miles on a flat tire and then run 6 miles bare foot (42 degrees outside) pushing my bike up the 3 biggest hills on the bike course. And after that, I still had to run 18.5 miles on the World’s toughest Long Course run leg. Maybe some would be disappointed to go from hopes of placing top 10 to finishing 5th from last. I was at peace (obviously a little disappointed that I didn’t have the race I wanted). But most importantly, I reaffirmed there was NO WAY I’d not finish a race. Surprisingly enough, that performance earned me a cover story in the USA Triathlon magazine. Who in their wildest dreams would have thought that? Definitely not the fans watching me run while pushing my bike and the one sole who was supposed to call my wife and tell her I’d be late but instead told her I was ‘done’ – quit and out of the race. Luckily she knew better.

I have found that the greatest obstacles provide the greatest rewards. I truly believe doing things others are scared to do for fear of failure will separate those comfortable with being ‘average’ from those who want to be ‘extraordinary’. Being normal isn’t bad, it’s just not what drives me. Being extraordinary means accepting there are no guarantees of success but failure is not an option – EVER! Failure only occurs when I give up and quit. Not hitting my goal is not a failure either. My goals are usually much higher than others and I understand they are just that – GOALS. If I hit my goals every month or every year, would they truly be GOALS or just EXPECTATIONS? The people we remember and celebrate are those that encountered obstacle after obstacle but refused to quit.

I take pride in John Wayne’s description of courage: “courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to tell others you’re scared. If you weren’t scared I’d be concerned. With time and experience, you embrace being scared and channel that energy into action, achieving things you previously thought were unattainable. In life, as in business, there is a direct correlation between risk and reward. Those that are scared to get out of their comfort zone and risk uncertainty, will rarely experience all that life has to offer. Despite what some think, predictability is not always a desired outcome.

The interesting thing about pain is it only hurts when you stop. As long as you are in motion, you don’t feel it and your body just adapts. The brain has a crazy means of adapting to hardship to protect ourselves. Once we do hard things over and over, the brain convinces our bodies that this is the new ‘status quo’ and we forget how things used to be. If you want to have an impactful life, one that makes you feel complete and purposeful, seek out those things that will really test you. Don’t pick opportunities or sporting events where no effort is required. Pick those where you know it will take everything you got to get the job done and pain is a guarantee. With pain comes growth and with growth comes satisfaction.


Shay is an All American and World ranked triathlete, burn survivor with scars over 65% of his body and is a sought out national motivational speaker. Despite being told he’d never compete in sports again at the age of 8, Shay is living testament to “Anything is Possible”: 4x Ironman, 4x member of Team USA, ranked top 1% of Ironmen worldwide and has competed in 9 triathlon world championships, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. His mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher” but to be a “competitor.” If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other posts.

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