A guide to fear, discomfort and perseverance with perspectives from science, philosophy and religion.
“It’s not that I’m so smart, I just stay with the problems longer.” — Albert Einstein
The surfer awoke well before dawn, hitting the beach and paddling out while everyone else was still in bed. The sun had barely cracked the horizon, and the chilly, gray waters were just as cold as the morning air. He was tired, and he could have easily slept in, but instead, he was waiting for a swell to roll in. He knew that it might not be as good as he hoped and that he might return to the beach feeling discouraged later—but despite his fears, he knew there was still nothing he would rather be doing than catching some waves.
When it comes to discomfort, our reaction is typically to guard ourselves—we avoid situations that we find challenging or intimidating. It’s the remnants of survival instincts that once served us well early in human history, when we were living in small tribes and fending off sabre tooth tigers. Those feelings of fear were generally a sign that we were in danger. Today, we live much more comfortable lives, and feeling fearful could be an indication that we’re about to endure a situation that may be painful in the short term, but will greatly benefit us in the long term and push us to change for the better.
In order to achieve our goals, we must come to understand that sometimes, we need to embrace the more difficult option. We have to be brave when faced with challenges rather than running away the moment things get tough. And we must learn impulse control, gain mastery over our fear response, and persevere in times of adversity.
Table of Contents
The Science of Perseverance
“Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Why do some people seem to have an easier time accepting challenges than others? Why do some of us feel anxious even in laid back social settings, while others have no problem jetting off to the other side of the world alone? When it comes to perseverance and embracing discomfort, sometimes the answers are all in your head.
Humans are essentially wired to avoid pain while maximizing pleasure. However, these aversions and inclinations are not always rooted in rational thought—instead, these instinctual drives are actually linked to bodily sensations. If something “feels” bad, whether it’s because of sheer physical discomfort or mental anxiety that causes physical stress, we will often do our best to avoid whatever is causing those feelings.
But these feelings are not always based in reality. For example, exercising often feels “bad” when we’re in the midst of a tough workout, but it’s actually good for us. Opening up to a therapist and working through those feelings might feel intensely uncomfortable in the moment, but in the long run, it could be highly beneficial. We must understand that these feelings are just that: feelings. They are not concrete truths, and comprehending that a feeling of discomfort doesn’t mean that something is wrong is an important step in personal development
Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck has explored the contrast between the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset.” When someone is stuck in a fixed mindset, they believe that their current abilities are innate and fixed—they won’t improve, even with lots of practice. On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset understands that their abilities can improve with lots of practice, and they can eventually come to master completely unexpected skills with the right strategy.
A person who adopts a growth mindset will accept discomfort as a sign of progress, not an obstacle that should deter them from their goals. In her research, Dweck has found that students who have a growth mindset generally experience increased motivation and higher levels of achievement.
The Neuroscientist’s Perspective
Everyone’s brain is wired a little bit differently, and this could explain why some of us are more risk averse the others.
Researchers have found that OLM cells, a certain type of neuron found in the hippocampus, have a major influence on an individual’s risk taking behavior. When stimulated, these cells produce a brain rhythm that is similar to what animals feel when they find a safe place within a threatening environment. People with high anxiety levels are also risk averse—they will go out of their way to avoid discomfort even when it could lead to a positive outcome.
Fear itself actually originates in the amygdala, and the activity of the amygdala could also help explain why some people are naturally more fearful than others. Those of us who find ourselves feeling fearful and anxious more often than not must switch from passive to more active fear coping strategies. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help many people see how much these feelings of (typically irrational) fear influences their behaviors, and how to change their thought process to see how discomfort can help them, not hurt them.
Dopamine (also known as the “reward molecule”) reinforces behavior, and higher levels of dopamine are actually linked to the ability to persevere for long periods of time and form daily healthy habits. Perseverance itself can be thought of as a habit. The dopamine rush we get when engaging in a survival instinct like eating a good meal is stronger than the feeling we might get when saving money little by little. But when we come to understand the “pleasure principle”—that what is pleasurable in the moment often is of no use to us in the long run—we will feel a bigger reward from engaging in beneficial activities that can help us throughout our lives, even when the going gets tough.
Philosophers on Perseverance
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength that will always spring up if thou wilt always look.” — Marcus Aurelius
For centuries, great philosophers have always understood the importance of perseverance. They knew that learning to embrace discomfort was simply part of the human experience, and rather than trying to avoid it or work around it, accepting these trials and tribulations was a crucial step on the path to inner peace and a life well lived.
Ryan Holiday has been hugely influential in the revival of stoic thought in our modern society. His bestselling book, The Obstacle is the Way, explores why human beings must learn to endure pain and adversity, and why cultivating perseverance and resilience is the key to achieving anything worthwhile. His number one lesson for readers? Focus solely on what we can control, let go of anything else, and understand that every obstacle is actually a chance to become a better, stronger human being. His words echo the ideas of Marcus Aurelius, perhaps the most famous of the original stoics: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Miyamoto Musashi was a Japanese swordsman, philosopher, and writer. He is the author of The Path of Aloneness, a book which explores his life’s philosophy and his thoughts on success. He believed strongly in the importance of discipline, especially when things got hard—that was actually when the greatest opportunities to improve were presenting themselves. He felt that people had to rely on discipline when they were unmotivated, and a disciplined routine was necessary to achieve any goal. This means working through discomfort, not just trying when conditions are good.
Musashi also wanted people to understood that no matter what, everything will be difficult in the beginning. He is famously quoted as saying, “It may seem difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first.” Essentially, he knew that getting discouraged right off the bat would not serve anyone. But going into a situation and accepting that initial discomfort was simply part of the deal could help them see it through.
Friedrich Nietzsche had a unique perspective on discomfort and perseverance. He famously stated that “mankind does not strive for happiness.” He explored this concept in his parable of the “Last Man,” a man who lives in a time where people have essentially invented happiness and no longer have any reason to struggle. But people in this world do not live in perpetual bliss—instead, Nietzsche characterized them as pathetic and helpless, with nothing of importance to strive for. All of their joy was shallow.
Nietzsche’s theories were exemplified in Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. This famous book chronicled Frankl’s experience in the concentration camps during World War II. Despite the horrible conditions, people carried on with their lives and continued their quest for personal meaning. Meaning was found in struggle, not sheer joy.
World Religions on Perseverance
“Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.” — Buddha
Nearly every religious tradition includes teachings on perseverance and how to handle hard times. One thing is for certain: none of these religions teach their followers that they should shy away from discomfort and challenges. Instead, they are encouraged to face challenges with strength and allow their faith to help support them when they experience discomfort.
Christians are encouraged to remember that hope in difficult times is “an anchor for the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). The Bible even states that suffering can be a source of joy, because enduring suffering can lead to greater things down the road. For instance, Romans 5:3-4 states, “We rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope.” At the end of the day, followers of Christianity are meant to find peace and solace in Jesus above all other things, with passages like John 16:33 serving as reminders from Christ: “In the world, you may have trouble and suffering, but take courage—I have conquered the world.”
In Islam, life overall is seen as a test, and people should expect to face continuous trials, which they are taught to endure with patient perseverance. Take note of this phrase: they are not just supposed to persevere, but be patient at the same time. Everything worth doing will take a while.
Followers of Islam also believe that Allah specifically tests his most devoted believers, but according to the Qur’an, “glad tidings” will be given “to those who say, when afflicted with calamity, “To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return.” The idea is to simply accept the challenges that come your way, ask Allah for assistance with your troubles, and continue moving forward with patient perseverance.
In Hinduism, it is believed that there are actually three ways that faith can be embodied, and this affects the way that people act when they are uncomfortable or challenged.
A rajasic person looks to God to fulfill earthly desires—in other words, they are pleasure seekers who hope that their faith will somehow allow them to take the easy way out and avoid discomfort. A tamasic person looks to God with envy and contempt in their heart—instead of finding joy in challenges, they cannot handle earthly discomforts, and they are often self destructive. On the other hand, a sattvic person believes completely in both God and their personal dharma, and they realize that the true nature of mortal existence is all about seeking enlightenment through any path offered—even if it involves discomfort.
In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, patience, perseverance, and endurance are all grouped together as one of the six “perfections.” According to Mahayana Buddhists, every person’s reality is actually an illusion. Furthermore, every person should strive to become a bodhisattva (another way of saying “enlightened being”)—not for the purpose of achieving individual enlightenment, but so that they can lift up others and help them reach enlightenment, too. Enduring suffering and detaching from it will eventually lead to collective liberation.
Perseverance in the World of Surfing
“Life is a lot like surfing. When you get caught in the impact zone, you’ve just got to get back up.” — Bethany Hamilton
There are few sports where perseverance is as crucial as in the sport of surfing. When a surfer is being knocked down by one wave after another, when even a full body wetsuit can’t protect a surfer from the cold, when the ocean has been flat as a lake for weeks and surfers can do nothing but wait for the swells to roll in—that’s when we need a heavy dose of perseverance to keep going without giving up.
Taylor Knox is an American professional surfer who is known for his unique style of power surfing. But his path to success has been a rocky road from the start. When Knox was only fifteen years old, he had back surgery after damaging his lumbar vertebra in a skateboarding accident. His recovery was no easy process—he was in a full-body cast for six months. At a young age, Knox was essentially forced to learn the importance of embracing discomfort, and it has continued to serve him throughout his life. Without experiencing the struggles that he did as a teenager, he may never have become the champion surfer that he is today.
We might know Jack Johnson as an International touring musician, but some people do not know that he actually started off his career as a professional surfer. However, when he suffered a serious injury while surfing at Pipeline, he was forced to change tactics for a while. Instead of wallowing and lamenting the loss of time he could have spent surfing, he decided to take advantage of this time off and learn to play the guitar. Well, if you’ve ever heard one of his albums, you’ll know that the rest is history— his music career took off and now he has two great passions in life. He could have chosen to run from the discomfort, but instead, he made the best of a bad situation—and because of his positive attitude, he ended up in an even better situation.
Jack also developed his skills as a videographer and released legendary surf films like Thicker than Water.
“I was taught the way of progress is neither swift nor easy.” —Marie Curie
Nothing important in life comes easy—to achieve our goals, we must be willing to embrace discomfort. Avoiding discomfort may feel like the better choice in the moment, but it will never lead us to find the satisfaction we crave.
Building a life around being risk-averse and fending off sources of discomfort is taking the easy way out. But sometimes, it is better to face the discomfort head on and walk straight into the challenge, knowing that you will grow as a person once you make it to the other side.
Happiness is a temporary relief from suffering. So embrace the suffering, enjoy the momentum, stop, recover and reflect.