The Purposeful Leader

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Suffering Not Required

Leadership, Motivation, Values

Why is emotional suffering necessary?

I haven’t been able to find a good reason.

Pain, yes. Suffering, no. I don’t see an upside.

Pain is how I describe negative emotion — sadness, disappointment, all the feelings we find uncomfortable or sometimes, unbearable.

Suffering is what we add to our pain by resisting it, or by thinking it means something about us.

Pain = feeling uninspired. Suffering = telling ourselves that we should be inspired.

We think that suffering is inevitable, and so we try to avoid it in all kinds of ways.

For example, when we set a goal or make a resolution, we think that if we care about the outcome, the options are:

  • Achieve it, feel amazing.
  • Don’t achieve it, feel horrible.

And so if we’re not on track, to avoid the inevitable suffering, we stop caring. Because caring would mean we have to feel horrible if we fall short. We make it okay that we didn’t do it, tell ourselves a story about what got in the way, and in the process, miss out on the fertile ground in between the two options.

We miss out on getting curious about what happened, about feeling disappointment but not beating ourselves up.

Because we don’t even know that’s an option.

But it is.

We can care and not be miserable. We can feel invested without the risk of complete emotional defeat.

I see this all the time with goal setting but also when clients feel like they have to repeatedly fight the same battles or make the same pitches without success. When they’re asking donors for contributions over and over again, or advocating for additional resources for their teams, or pitching a project.

Rather than face defeat, and the suffering that comes with it, they’re tempted to stop caring. They wish they could stop feeling invested.

No problem was ever solved by a caring, invested person checking out.

When we stop caring, we check out of what’s meaningful to us. We numb, or paper over, the stuff that makes our lives so rich.

I want to care when something I believe in doesn’t work out. I just don’t want to tell myself that something about me must be broken because of it.

The solution is to care deeply, but let go of the suffering.

When I set a goal, I’m willing to be disappointed if I don’t achieve it. And I also know that I’ll have my own back, that I can use it as an opportunity to investigate what happened, where I missed the mark, what I didn’t see. So next time, I bring a more powerful me to the game.

If you’ve got an opportunity to demonstrate the value of an idea you’ve pitched before in a new way, and go into that pitch numbing yourself because you don’t want to have to make failure mean something about you, you are not going to give your idea all it deserves. But what if you were willing to be disappointed by a “no”, but committed to not telling yourself it means something about you as a person?

Explore this for yourself. Sit down for a few minutes and answer these questions (not in your head, actually write your answers):

Why is it important to care, to have a vision?

Why is it important to set goals and achieve them?

What’s the upside of making a disappointing result mean something about you?

Tell me what you come up with.


I think playing small is the ultimate suffering. When, in an attempt to avoid suffering, we don’t go after the life we want, don’t shine as bright as we feel, don’t do what we know we are capable of, we suffer every day. And so many of us are in that place, feeling like there’s something inside of us that needs to be let out, but not knowing where to start. Give me 40 minutes, and I’ll show you exactly where to start. Take your joy seriously. Schedule a coaching consultation.