The Substance of Life

Most of us are familiar with suffering. If you have been in a relationship, been a parent, been an employee, lost someone or something you love, had dreams or even goals, you have had ample opportunity to suffer.

Suffering is the substance of life and the root of personality, for it is only suffering that makes us persons.

– Miguel de Unamuno

We are all too familiar with the pithy “No pain, no gain” that gets thrown around, but what are we really saying, and what does it really mean? This past Friday, we held the inaugural Recovering Leadership Conference (RECON21) in OKC. By the way, RECON22 will be October 21, 2022. Among an amazing lineup of speakers was Dr. Nathan Mellor, CEO of Strata Leadership. Dr. Mellor spoke to us about the relationship between suffering and personal development.

Suffering is required for growth. Why is this true? Growth is a form of change, and change is a form of pain. Therefore, we often resist change unless not changing is more painful than changing. In other words, when where we are is scarier than where we need to go, we get up and move. Until then, it is comfortable to stay put. Our brains seek ease. Repeated experiences, clear views, and familiar ideas feel true, good, and effortless—which equals ease.

Change, on the other hand, is experientially new, often unclear and uncertain, and leaves familiar behind, so change feels potentially false, scary, and requires significant effort—which equals unease. Unless our current circumstances create a higher degree of unease than the proposed or necessary change, our brains will choose to stay put rather than move forward. So suffering, caused by current circumstances, moves us forward by providing the impetus to change.

The above is true, but it is only part of the connection between personal development and suffering. In addition to creating motivation for change, suffering produces change of its own. When we experience suffering and we persevere, it builds character. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, so let’s make sure we are on the same page.

Character is the features that make up and distinguish us as an individual. Distinguish is the word I would like to focus on. Leaders are always distinguished; in that they are set apart or differentiated. You don’t get to choose to be distinguished or not. If you lead, you are. However, character can be good or bad. Leaders can be distinguished as good leaders or bad leaders.

When we experience suffering, our response over time becomes our character. If we most often choose to respond by quitting, blaming, retaliating, and carrying resentment, we will develop selfish and inward focused characteristics. However, when we persevere through suffering by being kind in the face of unkindness, finding beauty in dark places, being joyful in pain, and continuing to push forward in the face of heavy opposition, we develop other-oriented and outwardly focused characteristics.

It’s simple: selfish people make terrible leaders; other-oriented people make great leaders. It is our response to the inevitable suffering and resistance we experience in life that develops the character that determines the quality of our leadership. It is the quality of our leadership that determines the culture of our organizations. It is the culture of our organizations that determines the quality of the lives of the people we lead.

As a leader, I cannot live my best life if the people I serve aren’t living theirs. Suffering in my life has the potential to produce in me the character necessary to lead well. Suffering is the substance of life, mine and the people I lead. The next time I find myself suffering, I want to be able to say, “What will I gain from this that I can give to those around me?” It is in this way that the inevitable difficulties in my life are redeemed, and it is The Kimray Way.