How Suffering Can Serve Us

I recently had the joy and privilege of attending an entrepreneurs’ summer camp just outside of Austin, Texas. This event—which combined aspects of a traditional professional conference with all the fun of summer camp—gave me the opportunity to connect with some pretty remarkable people, one of whom made a particularly meaningful impression on me. This man, Charlie Engle, gave a keynote presentation that left every attendee’s jaw on the ground. Afterward, we got a chance to connect one-on-one, and by the time camp was over, we knew we’d formed a valuable friendship. About a week after arriving home, I opened my mailbox to find a copy of his memoir, Running Man, which he’d shared with me as a way to keep our camp conversations going. Those conversations led us to realize that in spite of how different our life experiences have been, we share a couple of fundamental beliefs: that pain and struggle are necessary ingredients for growth, and that what matters much more than what happens to us in life is how we respond to it.

Charlie’s story is a pretty unbelievable one. He’s been a hardcore cocaine addict, a record-breaking ultramarathon runner, an accomplished adventure athlete, a federal prisoner, a book author, and an international keynote speaker. He’s lived many lives and survived many devastations. And through it all, he’s maintained a fascinating and enduring affinity for suffering. He sees the role it’s played in shaping his greatest strengths, and he manufactures it by pushing himself beyond his limitations. He craves suffering. In many ways, he lives for it. It’s an interesting perspective, no doubt, and one that’s radically uncommon. In fact, it’s sort of the opposite of how we tend to think about and relate to suffering. What we commonly turn away from—fear, pain, physical discomfort, the seemingly impossible—Charlie embraces. And when he does it, he accomplishes astounding feats.

Meeting Charlie and reading the remarkable story of his life gave me a real sense of hope—for myself, and for all of us. If he can not only survive, but thrive, under seemingly impossible circumstances and transform his struggles into strengths, why can’t we do the same? Sure, he’s done some pretty superhuman things with his physical body, but it’s his relationship to pain and suffering that’s enabled him to do it. If we can develop that sort of relationship with our own struggles, there’s no limit to what we can achieve and overcome in our own unique ways. I’ve written it here before, and my clients have certainly heard me say it, grit, resilience, tenacity, and courage—proven to be some of the most important qualities of successful people—tend to come only through the overcoming of real difficulties. As the Buddhists say, “no mud, no lotus.” No guts, no glory. No pain, no gain.

It can be terrifying to recognize how little control we have over what happens to us; but the truth is, it hardly matters anyway. What matters is how we choose to interpret the events of our lives. It’s the stories we tell ourselves that make all the difference. When the unexpected occurs, when pain seeps in, when the struggle seems overwhelming or the suffering impossible to bear, that’s when our greatest, most valuable strengths are forged. If we can just hold on and find our center, if only for just one breath, the gifts of life’s imperfections can be revealed to us. And if, like Charlie and many others have showed us is possible, we can push through the pain and stay rooted in our vision for what we want to achieve, we can let our suffering serve us.

If you’re interested in learning more about Charlie’s journey and the projects he’s up to these days, check out his website: http://charlieengle.com.

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