Seven years ago I was working on backend infra for mobile apps at Parse, resenting MongoDB and its accursed single write lock per replica with all my dirty, blackened soul. That’s when Miles Ward asked me to give a customer testimonial for MongoDB at AWS reinvent.
It was my first time EVER speaking in public, and I had never been more terrified. I have always been a writer, not a talker, and I was pathologically afraid of speaking in public, or even having groups of people look at me. I scripted every word, memorized my lines, even printed it all out just in case my laptop didn’t work. I had nightmares every night. For three months I woke up every night in a cold sweat, shaking.
And I bombed, completely and utterly. The laptop DIDN’T work, my limbs and tongue froze, I was shaking so badly I could hardly read my printout, and after I rushed through the last sentences I turned and stumbled robotically off the stage, fully unaware that people were raising their hands and asking questions. I even tripped over the microphone cord in my haste to escape the stage.
Afterwards I burned with unpleasantries — fear, anger, humiliation, rage at being so bad at anything. It was excruciating. For the next two years I sought out every opportunity I could get to talk at a meetup, conference, anything. I got a prescription for propranolol to help manage the physical symptoms of panic. I gave 17 more talks that year, spending most nights and weekends working on them or rehearsing, and 21 the year after that. I hated every second of it.
I hated it, but I burned up my fear and aversion as fuel. Until around 18 months later, when I realized that I no longer had nightmares and had forgotten to pack my meds for a conference. I brute forced my way through to the other side, and public speaking became just an ordinary skill or a tool like any other.
I was on a podcast last week where the topic was career journeys. They asked me what piece of career advice I would like to give to people. I promptly said that following your bliss is nice, but I think it’s important to learn to lean into pain.
“Pain is nature’s teacher,” I said. Feedback loops train us every day, mostly unconsciously. We feel aversion for pain, and we enjoy dopamine hits, and out of those and other brain chemicals our habits are made. All it takes is a little tolerance for discomfort and a some conscious tweaking of those feedback loops, and you can train yourself to achieve big things without even really trying.
But then I hesitated. Yes, leaning in to pain has done well for me in my career. But that is not the whole story, it leaves off some important truths. It has also hurt me and held me back.
Misery is not a virtue. Pain is awful. That’s why it’s so powerful and primal. It’s a pre-conscious mechanism, an acute response that kicks in long before your conscious mind. Even just the suggestion of pain (or memory of past trauma) will train you to twist and contort around to avoid it.
When you are in pain, your horizons shrink. Your vision narrows, you curl inward. You have to expend enormous amounts of energy just moving forward through the day inch by inch.
Everything is hard when you’re in pain. Your creative brain shuts down. Basic life functions become impossible tests. You have to spend so much time compensating for your reduced capacity that learning new things is nearly impossible. You can’t pick up on subtle signals when your nerves are screaming in agony. And you grow numb over time, as they die off from sheer exhaustion.
I am no longer the CEO of honeycomb.
I never wanted to be CEO; I always fiercely wanted a technical role. But it was a matter of company survival, and I did my best. I wasn’t a great CEO, although we did pretty well at the things I am good at or care about. But I couldn’t expand past them.
I hated every second of it. I cried every single day for the first year and a half. I tried to will myself into loving a role I couldn’t stand, tried to brute force my way to success like I always do. It didn’t get better. My ability to be present and curious and expansive withered. I got numb.
Turns out not every problem can be powered through on a high pain tolerance. The collateral damage starts to rack up. Sometimes the only way to succeed is to redefine success.
Pain is a terrific teacher, but pain is an acute response. Chronic pain will hijack your reward pathways, your perspective, your relationships, and every other productive system and leave them stunted.
Leaning in to pain can be powerful if you have the agency and ability to change it, or practice it to mastery, or even just adapt your own emotional responses to it. If you don’t or you can’t, leaning in to pain will kill you. Having the wisdom to know the difference is everything. Or so I’m learning.
From here on out I’ll be in the CTO seat. I don’t know what that even means yet, but I guess we’ll find out. Stay tuned. ❤