Pain is born in the distance between you and the truth.
Think about a situation that’s caused you pain. Odds are, the roots of that pain were in you missing some fundamental truth… about what was happening, about another person, even about who you are, and what you need.
Let me pick this apart a little.
First, pain comes in many forms: physical pain, acute pain, dull pain, emotional pain, financial pain, etc. It often comes suddenly, from an accident or trauma out of the clear blue sky. When my sister-in-law received a cancer diagnosis on the eve of a big family trip, there was plenty of pain to go around. None of it could have been foreseen by her, of course, or by those of us who love her.
But now, long after a treatment regime that was itself acutely painful, cancer is no longer the thunderbolt it was at the beginning. It’s a reality in our family to be absorbed, processed, and dealt with as best we can, but knowing and facing the truth has been a key to moving past the pain.
Cancer is painful, to be sure… physically, emotionally, instantly. It’s something to be suffered through and most importantly to be fought, for all the pain even that entails. But, in the end, cancer in young, healthy people forces us to deal with what is perhaps an even more painful truth; that none of us is forever, that the people we love most can be taken from us at any time. To be distant from that truth is to set yourself up for the kind of pain I’m talking about, the pain not just of sudden suffering, but of sudden loss.
Cancer shows you that, makes you deal with it. It’s one of the few things cancer gives you, for all it takes away.
Though it pales in comparison to cancer, businesses failure is painful too. Entrepreneurs who’ve been there know how much it hurts to let down your team, your investors, even your family with a high visibility business failure. When I shut down MatchMine at the height of the 2008 credit crisis, it hurt like hell. But processing the truths of that situation — that it sucks to be a solution in search of a problem, and that failure is an unavoidable part of the entrepreneurial journey — stayed with me. There’s no doubt being in touch with those truths helped me avoid pain in my subsequent ventures, both for myself and for others.
Truth is the foundation of sound business strategy and execution. Think how many businesses have been destroyed by management unwilling or unable to see the truth of a market, a customer requirement, a competitive threat, a flawed business model, an emerging technology, a persistent product flaw, or a weakness in the team. Great teams seek the truth with abandon, and act on it without remorse. Weak ones package the truth in their own self interest, and equivocate when bold action is required. You could argue the primary value of a board lay in helping an entrepreneur spot the objective truth at the time she needs to most, while she’s still inflamed by the passion of creation, still engulfed by the fog of war.
Good CEO’s are obsessed with finding the truth, and paranoid about the trappings that insulate them from it. John LeCarré once said “a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world,” and, as an investor and frequent board member, it’s something I work hard to guard against.
Isn’t it the same in your business? What truths are hidden from you, either by a lack of data, or by an excess of it? What truths are you hiding from yourself, either because dealing with them interferes with a personal loyalty, a pet project, or a narrative you’ve held onto for too long? In the end, these are the things that threaten your business, the things that can cause you real pain.
The same can be said for your life. What are the truths about yourself, about what you want or what you need, that you work hardest to suppress? What is the truth of those around you, of your relationship, of your past, of your strengths and weaknesses, of the situations you feel bound to today because it will simply hurt too much to let them go?
I can’t promise you exploring those things, let alone dealing with them, won’t cause you pain. But I can promise that pain will pass, and that the alternative — running your business or living your life at a safe distance from the objective truth — will hurt you more deeply and more enduringly than you may even be willing to imagine.
Pain is born in the distance between you and the truth. Spare yourself some by having the tenacity to find the truth, and the courage to act on what you see.
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