Goodness, Greatness, and the Power of Pain

I admit it. I like the idea of becoming “great” in some way. A great writer. A great athlete. A great friend. A great cat dad (I’m planning to adopt two fur balls in about a month… finally!). A great gatsby, even. But what does the power of pain have to do with this? We’ll get there.

My initial feeling when considering greatness is not inspiration. It’s pre-exhaustion as I look at the mountain to climb. Greatness is highly desirable, but its vague and intimidating, too. What is the threshold? What line must one cross to become “great?” What will it take to get there?

For these reasons, I find it’s often better to chase goodness. Be a good parent. A good writer. A good athlete. A good gatsby. What is a gatsby? I looked it up and now I’m more confused.

The Only Thing You Need to Know About Goodness

You can’t be great without first being good. Goodness is on the spectrum from terrible to great. You will hit it before you ever become great, and that’s important.

I think it’s important not to separate goodness and greatness. Greatness is simply a more refined version of goodness. First you become good, and then you refine that skill into something extraordinary. There’s no skipping that step!

I’ve been watching “The Last Dance,” a documentary about the 1998 Chicago Bulls season, which was the last in a period of unprecedented dominance. The focus is on the all-time great Michael Jordan. We tend to glorify great men and women, and try to mimic them, and this is what makes us desire greatness, and deem goodness “not good enough.”

Michael Jordan didn’t suddenly become great. Even as a natural and transcendent talent, like everyone else, he started out average at best in basketball. Then, he got good. After that, he refined his skills to become great.

Keep this in mind the next time you desire greatness but feel overwhelmed at the work needed. You don’t even need to worry about becoming great until you get good! 

That’s the first point of this article. Goodness is good, and a fine aim! But what about greatness? What if we still want something more?

What Drives Greatness?

Often, it’s the power of pain.

I’m of the rare viewpoint that, on average, our pain drives at least as much as our passion. Our pain even generates and drives our passions. This is not a sweeping statement that all passion comes from pain. Rather, it’s a correction to the false narrative that passion is this pure, isolated, magical thing. It’s often a result of our unique pain and story, and that’s a good thing.

Michael Jordan clearly had passion for basketball, but pain played an equally big role in his development. He didn’t make the varsity team one year. It hurt, and it changed his mindset.

“Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it.”

~ Michael Jordan (source)

You can see how pain and passion are connected—Jordan’s passion for basketball is exactly what made his failure to make the team so painful. And he harnessed the power of pain and anger to push himself harder and get better. I’ve experienced this as well.

How Pain Created My Passion

There were two significant pain points in my life that drove me to my dream career.

I don’t consider myself to be a great writer, but I am considerably better at it than when I started. And I started because of the power of pain.

The first life-shifting pain I felt was when I had developed poor habits and struggled to change them. That caused me to search for strategies and experiment to change my behavior. I found that writing my thoughts, research, and experiments was the best way for me to process and internalize what I learned.

Years later, I experienced a second life-shifting pain. It happened after I graduated in 2010, following “The Great Recession.” Jobs weren’t easy to come by. At least, they weren’t for me! Nobody would give me a chance. I searched for a year and came up with the same job I had while in college, making my degree seem especially useless, and making my feel quite rejected. I wrote this post the same day I quit that job. It was, so far, the biggest turning point in my life.

That experience drove me to try to create my own path that didn’t depend on someone else seeing my potential. Like Jordan, I had a chip on my shoulder. I still do. I probably always will. And I’m guessing that most of you reading this have experienced something in your life to give you a chip on your shoulder too.

The thing is, we’re all wronged in life. Nobody gets everything they deserve. Some people get things they don’t deserve. Unfair is the nature of the world we live in. There’s lots of pain, lots of chips on shoulders, and lots of passion that comes from the powerful feeling of pain.

Those two sources of pain combined to push me towards my career as an author and entrepreneur. I wrote my first book in 2013 and here I am, still writing seven years later!

What About Innate Passions?

Based on a few metrics, I believe I’ve become a “good” writer, or at least good enough to make an impact in the world. Greatness will take some more work and intentional skill-building. But at the moment, my focus has shifted to other passions.

Storytelling, comedy, and entertainment are three of my interests not tied to pain. Lately, I’ve been trying to get good at making impactful videos that make people think or laugh, or both. It’s been fun to see the improvement with each video I make!

This coronavirus has caused immeasurable pain in the world, on so many levels. And we’re going to see a massive human response to it. People will use this pain to innovate, to love, and to change the world. You can expect a much greater interest in microbiology after this, for example. You can expect more epidemiology majors. And you can expect more technological innovations to cater to social distancing needs. All good things. All born from the power of pain.

That’s the one upside of pain. Its power to harm us can be harnessed for greatness, too. Don’t get me wrong. Pain is a bad thing and nothing to celebrate. But it can create a powerful response.

Quick Recap

Why should anyone become good if they can become great? Because goodness is the foundation for greatness. There’s no shame or weakness in aiming for good, just as nobody would shame you for walking to your mailbox instead of teleporting to it. One step leads to the next. 

Think about your pains that became (or can become) passions, and natural interests. The things you care about the most are likely one or the other. Your pain can “push” you forward. Your interests can “pull” you to them. Both are good. Be aware of which is which and they’ll become even more effective for you.

Whatever you want to pursue, whether driven by pain or interest, make sure you use an effective strategy to do it.

Effective strategies prioritize consistency. They have no magical time limit (not 15 days, 30 days, or one year). My goal with every book I write is to design a strategy that’s just as effective on day 32,429 as day one. If it requires superhuman will or motivation, 95% will fail. If it works on your worst day, it’s going to work every day.

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