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Climbing Through Pain

By Orrin Woodward

I once read a profound book by Robert Grudin, The Grace of Great Things.

It describes a philosophy of innovation and creation and really makes you think and helps you understand why new ideas are attacked so aggressively.

In the section “Ethics of Creativity,” Grudin says:

“To be truly open to any experience, the mind must be open to all. The willing endurance of pain is a key factor not only in human dignity, but also in human creativity. It would seem to follow that individuals who spend their lives in the persistent avoidance of pain are not likely to amount to much…

“The process of achieving their professional level is usually full of pain. Such mastery demands endless practice of technical operations, endless assaults on seemingly ineluctable concepts, humiliation by teachers, anxious and exhausting competition with peers.

“To gain such mastery, one must face the sting of pertinent criticism, the shock of a thousand minor failures, and the nagging fear of one’s own unimprovable inadequacy.

“These pains are seldom eroded by success; as we proceed to higher and higher levels of expertise, and as the stakes get higher and higher, the agonies of excellence reappear in new and frightening way.

“A tiny minority gets through to the top, to memorable excellence or profound understanding. The rest of us stop along the way, perhaps for a temporary rest, perhaps for a period of reassessment. But once we stop, we are unlikely to start up again. Security is suddenly far sweeter than enterprise. …

“One might reply that most people who surrender simply lack the ability to get very far. But it is more accurate to say that ability and intelligence, rightly understood, include a readiness to face pain, while those characteristics which we loosely term ‘inadequacy’ and ‘ignorance’ are typically associated with the avoidance of pain…

“Modern society has evolved an idiomatic defense of non-achievement so subtle and elegant that it almost makes failure attractive. We can equivocate with failure by saying that we could not stand ‘the pressure.’ We can inflate mediocrity by calling cow colleges universities, by naming herds of middle-level executives vice presidents or partners, and by a thousand other sorts of venal hype.

“We can invert the moral standard by defending a fellow non-achiever as being too sensitive or even too good for the chosen arena.

“This double rejection of pain — a surrender sanctified by a euphemism — has in our time achieved institutional status. Because it includes its own antimorality, it can be passed on with pride from generation to generation.

“Other ages may have been as full of non-achievers as ours, but no other age, I believe, has developed so comprehensive a rhetoric of failure.

“To conclude, then: those people in quest of intellectual dignity and independence in the late 20th century must act in a cultural context that has done its best to annul or camouflage one of the key elements in the quest, the challenge of pain.

“For this reason such people currently labor under a double burden: they must face the pains inherent in their task, and they must do so in a culture that has little appreciation for their suffering.”

I know this is deep, but the point is so profound and necessary to understand for any would-be achiever.

Our society has equated pleasure with good and pain with bad.

This belief is an unquestioned fact in most circles and in some cases is accurate. Certainly using equipment versus using a shovel to dig a basement is a reduction in back pain and an improvement of people’s lives.

But this can be carried too far when discussing achievement and creativity.

In the struggle for achievement, you will experience pain. Just as the typical child falls 999 times on average before taking his first successful step, we must fall and experience pain before achieving breakthroughs.

If we picked up our child every time they attempted to walk (and risk pain), they would never develop the muscles to walk on their own two feet. Pain avoidance in the area of achievement equates to success avoidance.

Quitters, Campers and Climbers

According to Paul Stoltz, there are three types of people in life: Quitters, Campers and Climbers.

Mr. Stoltz teaches: Life is like a mountain and we are born with an innate urge to climb the mountain.

Billions of people in the world and all of us born to climb the mountain and yet the mountain top is practically empty. What happened to all the climbers?

1. Quitters see the mountain with its dangerous cliffs and storms and decide not to climb at all. By denying their God-given urge to climb they make major compromises in their life.

Quitters are people who entertain themselves to death or escape into drugs, sex or some hobby. They do this to keep from looking at the mountain they are avoiding and not climbing.

They suffer the worst pain of all – the pain of regret for a life not used in the service of others. They spend their lives justifying why they didn’t bother climbing and attempting to solicit others to justify their position.

2. Campers climb the mountain in the beginning. They are excited about life and begin to climb the mountain of understanding and achievement. At some point they achieve a nice mountain view and begin to make compromises.

They look around and think they are doing pretty good and the next climb may be dangerous. They start compromising on their calling for the security of the camp. They set up tent and convince themselves they are temporarily resting until the storm subsides.

Some of the most talented people in life are here. They have achieved phenomenal lifestyles and may fool others into thinking they are still climbing. The problem is when they have set up camp; they compromise their calling for the view and comforts of camp.

Taking a rest at camp before the next climb is necessary, but many never climb again. Some of the best would be leaders are stuck in camp focusing on buying a bigger tent or filling the tent with nice camping equipment.

3. Climbers decide their calling and convictions cannot be compromised, no matter how hard the climb or how bad the storm. They know they were called to climb and the mountaintop is obtainable.

Climbers are a rare breed — they never sacrifice their convictions for conveniences. The climber knows that life is not about obtaining the biggest tent or the most items in the tent. Will anyone quote your net worth at your funeral?

Climbers know that true living is in the discovery of your own potentialities and the willingness to give your discoveries away to others. A true climber discovers an easier path up the mountain or a better technique to climb.

They subsequently take the time to teach all other climbers what they have learned. Making it to the mountaintop is not about being there alone — it is about how many people you bring with you! This is what leadership is about.

To stay in climb mode you must not listen to the world’s thinking. Our culture has glorified the quitter and campers. They actually demean the climber as someone who does not have his priorities straight. I am not suggesting climbing at the expense of family, friends, etc.

I am suggesting teaching family, friends, etc. how to climb with you. We were called to climb and anything besides climbing is compromise.

Don’t tell me you are doing “pretty good” and have a great nest egg. Tell me what you are learning and what pain you are going through as you discover how to reach the next peak.

Yes, being a climber is tougher in today’s society because of the surrounding culture. But it is also more necessary because of the surrounding culture.

If we don’t climb today, our children and grandchildren may get to the mountain and find it has been closed for safety reasons. Someone may have decided they could reduce pain even further by barring people from climbing at all.

Are you climbing, camping, or quitting? What pain are you going through and what are you learning from the process?

If you have been quitting or camping, when are you going to start climbing?


Orrin Woodward is the co-founder of Team, a leadership development and training company, and the New York Times best-selling co-author of Launching a Leadership Revolution.

Named by the International Association of Business as a Top 10 Leadership Guru, he is dedicated to building leaders and entrepreneurs and promoting freedom and prosperity.

Orrin blogs regularly at Orrin Woodward. He lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida with his wife and four children.

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