Embracing the suck, the new “School of Hard Knocks”
At the end of senior year, my high school asked every student to write down the “institution of higher learning” they would be attending upon graduation. Jokingly, I scribbled in “the School of Hard Knocks” as at that time I planned on entering the Marine Corps. I imagined my time “in school” would be filled with hard lessons and harder teachers. The greatest lesson I ever learned during my time in the Marines: Embrace the suck.
The idea behind “embrace the suck” (as I interpret it) is whatever element in your current situation feels miserable, painful, or uncomfortable, don’t just accept it, embrace it. Be curious about it. Take every bit of it in.
By embracing pain for what it is you may come to realize that “good” and “bad” are simply ideas we attribute to situations or things based on our own perception or emotions. Good and bad aren’t truly objective assessments of anything. Once we discard the initial judgement of “good” or “bad” and just exist in the situation, we are better able to do what we’re meant for and leave with the lessons and experiences we are meant to take from any situation.
Whether or not we realized it at the time, we stumbled on some useful and ancient wisdom. Embracing pain. Embracing discomfort. Embracing the lessons each situation provides. Embracing how situations change who we are. In those actions, knowledge, opportunity, and strength await…all gained, by embracing the suck.
Poverty as a prep school
When I was traveling in Hanoi one day, I noticed a boy, about 7 or 8 years old, with decent English for his age and origin trying to sell me something. I generally refuse buying anything from children when I travel as I fear the children are being exploited by their parents simply as a means of income, so I refused and continued on with my day.
The following day, I saw the boy helping who I assumed was his mother as they worked at a street side soup stall. The boy cleaned up dishes, asked people how they were doing, delivered food, and did his mother’s bidding. I was curious about the situation, because the boy appeared to be very happy and treated well, contrary to my notions from the day before, so I began chatting with his mom.
I learned that when this little boy was not in school he worked with his mom at the family soup stall, to build his skills in business and an entrepreneurial mindset. More interestingly, she encouraged him to sell small things to tourists more for the purpose of practicing his English than for income. She had dreams that one day he would attend a great school in the west, and she believed that improving his English was the first step to enhancing his opportunities in life and getting him to a place better than she would achieve in this life. I respect that.
This mother embraced the reality of the situation, as hard as it was. Being from a poor family in Vietnam, which limits what she could provide her child, she still made the most of the situation by having him earn something for the family and, more importantly for her, improve his English and the opportunities he would have later in life.
The little boy embraced the challenge with pleasure, eager to show off the slang he had learned from his days selling. He was eager to show off all of the coins from foreign countries that he picked up from patrons along with the facts about each country they had shared with him. By embracing his own situation, pain and all, this little boy was becoming stronger by the day. By “embracing the suck.”
By eventually discarding my own judgment of “good” or “bad” in this situation, I was reminded that all situations have value and potential growth, if we embrace them.
Just because something doesn’t feel good, doesn’t mean it’s bad
Fish sauce. An essential condiment for most soups and dishes throughout southeast Asia. |Imagine soy sauce, but more oily with a faint fish flavor and a heavy fish smell…that lingers for a month after you finish eating. Even if you brush your teeth with bleach. Every street cart in Thailand has a bottle at the ready for patrons because Thai chefs know what Thais like.
So, about that fish sauce. Do Thai’s love it? Hell yeah. What about most Americans? Ummm…not so much. Not gonna happen for most Americans.
So, Americans, on average, don’t like fish sauce. Does that mean fish sauce is bad? Not necessarily. Thais like fish sauce, does that mean it’s good? Not necessarily. What’s the point?
The point is that something can exist without being labeled (or treated) as bad or good even if you don’t “like” it initially. The label of good or bad exists only in your mind. The moment you suspend your idea that “fish sauce is bad” you can begin to understand why Thais love it. Maybe Thais love that smelly soup addition because it’s a more flavorful alternative to soy sauce? Perhaps because it is the equivalent of a beef flavored seasoning, as fish is a more common protein for southeast Asians than beef…? Perhaps Thais love that fishy stuff because it is something familiar, something they’ve eaten since they were children, like most Americans and ketchup. In any case, you are less likely to grow through the experience (by understanding another culture and their culinary tastes) if you label this thing as “bad” and mindlessly dismiss it. By embracing it, the funky, fishy taste and all, you have more to gain and more opportunity to grow.
A metaphor for embracing pain: Creating great tools requires pressure, time, and harsh process
Let’s try something…
Which is a better, more durable material for tools, wood or stone? Stone, generally, right? Ok how about stone versus iron? Iron makes more reliable and durable tools of course. And how about iron versus steel? Well, steel…there’s a reason your mom’s good knives are made of steel. How does this relate to embracing the stuck?
One of my favorite movies of all time is “The Shawshank Redemption.” In the final scenes when Red (played by Morgan Freeman) details how Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) escaped from prison, Red explains that what motivated Andy to design his escape plan and finally execute are the same things that geologists study…pressure and time. The pressure (and pain) of being trapped in such miserable circumstances over an extended period of time, until one day Andy snapped and created a plan to break out of prison. Pressure and time motivated and toughened him up enough to do what no other prisoner could do. The pressure and pain he embraced made him realize what he truly wanted (freedom) and stoked the fire of motivation in him. Andy then used time to solve his problem and execute the impossible solution…his escape to freedom. So, what does this have to do with wood, stone, iron, and steel?
The strongest and most useful materials known to man require harsh processes to create. Trees grow in pleasant conditions, filled with moisture and warm sunlight. Stones require harsher conditions, formed by the heating and eventual cooling of the earth. Iron goes a step further, requiring the harsh chemical process of oxidation. Steel, goes even further, made mostly of iron but requiring science to create the alloy.
We could go even further with this metaphor using the strongest of the materials (steel) as our primary example and say that the best steel tools, knives for instance, must go through an even more arduous process. In order to produce a knife that performs better than the rest, it must be tempered and hardened, repeatedly heated and cooled and pounded endlessly with a hammer, then sharpened with a tool that is just as hard if not harder than the steel that was created.
This intense process is what makes the steel hard and more reliable than wood, and stone, and iron in times when real work needs to be done. And even as such an incredible material, it can be improved, over time, with heat and pressure.
Embrace the arduous process that lies in front of you, and the change it brings, and you stand to grow regardless of where you begin. Pain will not create growth or subside immediately. The process will take time. While the pain exists, simply embrace it and be patient.
The people you idolize “embrace the suck” as a tool for success
Pick your favorite person renowned for their successes. Now, Google “failure” plus their name. Odds are, there will be countless failures to their name. Elon Musk, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mandela, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Michael Jordan, MLK etc. Those with great success have, most often, endured great failure or great hardship. They have also embraced the “negative” situations in their lives, as well as the lessons and enrichment the situations had to offer.
Elite athletes practice, exercise, and live routinely tempering their minds and bodies with ever increasing pain and rigor with the goal of becoming the perfect tool on their field of choice.
SEALs, Rangers, and Marine Raiders go through their respective rites of passage marked by pain, lack of sleep, and never-ending tasks that would break normal human beings so that no real world mission will ever be more difficult than what they’ve endured in training.
The best scientists and engineers I’ve known study and research until their brains shut down hoping to stretch their capability of creative thought and capacity for retaining knowledge in the process
In the business world, elite consultants and investment bankers are touted for having the most grueling schedules, 60-100-hour weeks filled with research and brain draining work. Most of them simply have the goal of proving themselves and learning as much as they can in the fast-paced environment over a handful of years. Their real goal? Taking the skills gained during those hard times to succeed as a “sharper knife” in another business realm.
So, if we have so many examples of high performing contributors in our society that not only “embrace the suck”, but actually pursue the suck…why do so many of us fear pain in our own lives?
What “embracing the suck” means for travelers
If you travel adventurously then you will, eventually, run into adventurous hurdles. If you venture to places that people like you don’t go to, you will eventually sleep on a cold floor. You will be turned away at a border crossing. You will pay more for a souvenir, or a bus ticket, or a meal simply because you are not a local. You will get sick. You will be alone. And the list goes on. But…
If you travel adventurously then you will see places that people like you don’t normally go to. You will learn empathy for those in the world that weren’t born into your life and know the ground as their only bed. You will learn to think quickly when your plan b, c, and d have failed, ultimately realizing that with patience, everything works out in the end. You will learn how to treat people more humanely and respectfully so that they see you not as a foreigner, but a curious guest which they welcome, as your presence enriches their home. You will grow stronger, immune to more, as you recover from your sicknesses. You will learn more of your own strength and value as you learn about yourself by spending “interesting” times in solitude.
What “embracing the suck” means for those that live “comfortable lives”
If you do not travel and are blessed enough to live a comfortable life, you can grow by embracing your “suck of choice.”
Strive to be honed by the hard times in life. Speak up during the meeting at work to share your useful thoughts, even if your voice shakes. Have the hard conversation with your children, showing them that you’ve made mistakes and are human but that they can learn from you and be better. Go for that job you are only “60% qualified” for, promising yourself that you will grow into it. Make yourself vulnerable and tell that person you love them, despite the fear of what may happen…be it a potential partner, an estranged parent, a sibling, or a friend that needs to hear it.
Get up at 4AM for a 5-mile run. Commit to volunteer on a Friday night at a homeless shelter. Fully commit to the marathon with your partner, weekend training sessions and all. Make the Crossfit and spinning class a near religious routine. Hike and camp in the backcountry. Go to the ends of the earth to improve the life of someone less fortunate. Do it in benefit of the world around you, but do it wholeheartedly and selfishly, because in the pain and discomfort you will find priceless growth.
Pain, sacrifice, struggle, risk, and discomfort come in many forms, but value lies in the experience of them all…if you learn to embrace them.
Make pain and discomfort tools in your life
Pain and discomfort exist. They will always exist. You can passively allow them to weaken and break you as you crumble, or you can dive into them. Take care of yourself, and recover selfishly at every opportunity. Take pride in what you have survived. And look on eagerly to your next adventure. Who knows what growth it might bring. Embrace the suck.