No pain, no gain.
It’s one of the more heavily used sayings in the motivation industry, especially across the fields of fitness, athletics, and yes….language learning.
I’ve written before about my belief that difficulty is a universal aspect of language learning. No matter your skill level, you’re bound to experience difficulty sooner or later, and that difficulty can manifest itself as a type of physical or psychological “pain” or discomfort. To succeed in our learning, I often feel that the only thing we can do is just persevere past that pain, in hopes of greener pastures beyond.
I like that logic, and indeed it has worked well for me in the past. Pushing through “pain” is what has led me to complete very many endeavors in my life that I would have otherwise given up on.
But somewhere, deep in the back of my mind, I know that that doesn’t make any sense. Physiologically, pain isn’t there to spur you onward, but to hold you back. Our nervous systems manifests the phenomenon of pain in order to keep us from doing things that would risk our well-being.
In short, it’s why you feel pain when you touch a hot stove. If you couldn’t feel pain, you’d risk damaging your skin irrevocably before you even noticed you were leaning on the hot surface. That’s certainly not the kind of pain you’d want to push through.
So, what gives? Why is it good to push through some types of pain, and bad to push through others?
It’s not always easy to tell.
When to Hold vs. When to Fold
Take these two examples.
Noted polyglot Luca Lampariello, speaker of 13+ languages, said that at one point he felt he was “failing with Japanese.” While attempting to speak, his mind would often go blank, and he kept making the same mistakes endlessly. He felt so poorly about it that he even considered giving up Japanese in favor of another language.
Another polyglot, Benny Lewis, had a similarly negative experience while studying Mandarin in Taiwan. After grueling three-hour study sessions, Benny regularly reported feeling like his “brain was melting” and that he occasionally got “splitting headache[s]” as a result.
Despite manifestations of both physical and psychological pain, both learners carried on to success, and Luca and Benny speak both of the aforementioned languages to this day.
But what does their success mean?
At first glance, it seems that there are two possibilities:
• “Pain” should be pushed through. Language learners who can push through pain are “strong,” while those who can’t are “weak.”
• “Pain” should be avoided. Unsuccessful language learners are “protecting themselves from harm,” while successful language learners are “masochists”.
I find such conclusions to be unflattering for both sides. Giving up should not always be considered a sign of “weakness”, nor should ignoring our evolutionarily-necessary pain system be considered a sign of “strength”.
Surely the answer must lie in some middle ground.
Surely there must be a way to know when to continue through difficulty while also knowing when to save yourself from potential harm or overextension?
I think I’ve figured it out.
Instead of talking about “pain” or “difficulty”, I would like to split the concept in two:
Challenge vs. Suffering
Challenge is what I would like to call “good pain”. It is the positive stress that molds us into better, more fulfilled versions of ourselves. This is the pain that is worth enduring, as it will leave us better off than when we began.
Suffering is what I would like to call “bad pain”. It is the negative stress that destroys us, breaking down both our minds and our bodies. This is the pain that’s worth escaping from, as prolonged exposure will leave us tattered and broken.
The question is, however, how do we know when we’re in the middle of a challenge, or in the middle of suffering?
How could something like a “brain-melting feeling” signal to Benny Lewis that everything is going right in his Mandarin learning, instead of a sign that it’s time to give up?
How could a feeling of failure in learning Japanese lead Luca Lampariello to keep going, instead of spurring him on to another language where he could feel more successful?
I believe the answer lies on the other side of the pain.
What’s Beyond the Pain?
Benny Lewis and Luca Lampariello (along with countless other learners), continued on through difficulty and pain because they wanted to become the better version of themselves that was on the other side of that pain. They saw the pain as a challenge, and beyond it, they saw the “reward” of being able to speak Japanese and Mandarin, respectively. This is what people talk about when they say “no pain, no gain”.
Challenges are the obstacle that you must surpass in order to grow. If you’re currently struggling in your learning, but you know that a better, more complete you is on the other side of that struggle, then you’re in the midst of a challenge, and you should strive to move on.
Suffering is the obstacle that you must surpass in an attempt to remain as you where when you started. If you’re currently struggling in your learning, and hoping and praying that continuing onward won’t leave you any worse off than when you began, you’re suffering. If that is the case, it is in your best interest to protect yourself and do something else instead.
By using this “Challenge vs. Suffering” model, we can ask ourselves one simple question in times of stress that will help us know when it is best to push through pain, and when it is right to avoid it.
In times of struggle, simply ask yourself:
If I can survive this pain, will I be better or worse off than I was when I began?
If you believe you’ll be better off, that the obstacle that you’re currently facing is only momentarily preventing you from achieving a goal or a long-held dream, you’ll know you’re simply being challenged, and that you must continue.
If you believe you’ll be worse off, that the obstacle in your path is breaking you down and damaging who you are in the long-term, then it is time to choose a different path, and perhaps seek help from an outside source in order to protect your health and well-being.
Though pain is a somewhat inevitable reality of existence, knowing what types of pain are “good” and which types are “bad” is an essential part of our survival and growth as not only language learners, but as people.
Learn well the difference between what challenges you and what makes you suffer, and you’ll be well-equipped to face any obstacle in your path.
DISCLAIMER: This content is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of a physician or qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information. In event of a medical emergency, call a doctor or 911 immediately.