The upside of suffering

Forging mental and physical strength through pain

Thinking back on it now, it's just one big, blurry, and somewhat painful memory.

My experience with the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams between 2007 - 2012 was a formative one in many ways.

I've mentioned it in this newsletter before and I also wrote a book about the experience.

Long story, short, I dedicated five years of my life to the financial markets mental marathon that is the CFA exams.

It shouldn't have taken five years to pass three exams. But it did—with lots of pain, suffering, and failure along the way.

If you're not familiar with the CFA exams, candidates are expected to learn an almost ridiculous amount of complicated financial material and to then demonstrate this knowledge in an all-day exam, at that time, held just once a year. If you failed, too bad. See you next year. Pass rates were depressingly low—by design. Normally, about 50% of candidates would pass Level 1. By the time Levels 2 and 3 came around, pass rate percentages were typically in the 30's. Imagine dedicating years of your life to such an endeavor only to face 30% odds of passing the final level. Brutal.

It's recommended that you spend 300 hours studying for each level. What does 300 hours actually look like? Well, if the test was on May 31st for instance, you could cover 300+ hours by starting on January 1st and studying about 15 hours/week. Doesn't sound like much unless you have... a job, kids... or really anything else going on in your life.

So for me, with a demanding job and no kids (at least at the beginning of that journey), it meant working a full week and then studying 8 hours Saturday and 8 hours Sunday. Forget holidays (sorry, Easter and Memorial Day. No chance, St. Patrick's Day).
Forget vacations. Forget weddings. Forget everything. It's studying. Just studying.

And that's what I did. For half a year. For five years in a row.

Why five years for only three levels? Failure! That's why!

My journey looked like this:

2007Passed Level 1This is easy.

2008Failed Level 2Well, maybe I need to take this more seriously.

2009 Passed Level 2Just need to pass one more level and I'm golden.

2010Failed Level 3Oh no. I have to do this AGAIN?

2011Failed Level 3Pure devastation. I can't do this anymore. Just had a kid. The dream dies. I quit.

2012Passed Level 3Okay. I am one stubborn SOB. One more time. With a baby at my feet..... Pass. Finally. Relief. Done.

At some point along the way, the exams became less about whatever having the CFA designation could do for my career and more about just proving to myself that I could do it. I developed an endurance for suffering. It was suffering that was taking a toll on every part of me - my work, my relationships, even my body - but I learned to view it as a means to an end.

What I took away from that experience was not the financial knowledge—sadly most of those formulas and concepts were gone within hours of walking out of the exam room. Rather, what I came away with was a blueprint for tackling hard things. An instruction manual for playing the long game, and putting up with less-than-ideal circumstances for long periods of time in the pursuit of a greater goal.

As uncomfortable and inconvenient as all of that was for me, I don't want to overstate it. Mine was a first-world problem. My studies were conducted in luxury apartment buildings and the checks from my Wall Street employers always cleared. Sure I had lots to stress about. But it's all relative, isn't it?

I was reminded of this over the past week when attending a panel discussion on the topic of privilege. I got to hear several accomplished financial professionals talk about real hardship. About growing up poor, about particularly challenging home situations, and about combatting racial bias for their entire lives.

For me, the discussion was eye-opening on multiple levels. Perhaps most surprising was that to a person, they were all a) extremely grateful—with impressively positive outlooks on life, and b) thinking less about their own hardships and more about those who had it worse than them.

Think of that. Growing up poor. Disadvantaged. Dealt a bad hand in life. And what do they focus on? The people who have it worse than them.

Again, it's all relative.

Suffering is kind of funny like that. It changes you. I guess it's like a wave. It can break in one direction or another. For some, the suffering is too much. It cracks them. Defeats them. And they succumb to it and their worldview can become jaded and bitter. For others, the wave can break in the opposite direction. The suffering makes them stronger.

That discussion reminded me of a quote I heard a few days ago from the author Greg McKeown in his conversation with Tim Ferriss. He said:

"If you focus on what you have, you gain what you lack. And if you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have.”

It's similar to the concept of keeping a gratitude journal—or basically just writing down one thing every day that you're grateful for. It's a forcing mechanism to get you to appreciate what you have. And it's surprisingly effective. (Checks notes: Yep, been skipping this for about two months... need to get back to it.)

Suffering is all around us. In a very real sense, living and suffering are synonymous. I'm no religious scholar but I do know enough to realize that suffering is a consistent theme across all of the world's major religions. Part of this is surely because religion, for millennia, has represented an escape from—or maybe an explanation for—the suffering that we humans endure. But I suspect that another reason why suffering is such a central tenet of religion is that its power to transform has been recognized far and wide over time.

We suffer quite literally from the moment we are born. I was reminded of this one year ago when my wife (suffering much more than me) gave birth to a beautiful (but screaming) little boy. And I've been reminded ever since how painful it is to start out life—every tumble, pinch, or new tooth is cause for pure, red-faced, ear-splitting suffering. Forget about getting put down for a nap against one's wishes.

And of course, the suffering continues throughout our entire levels. Failed sports endeavors. Lost loves. Not getting into the university of choice. And then the real doozies: career failures, divorce, losing loved ones, and eventually sickness and death.

But before I depress you too much, let me share some good news. As we get older, we get better at dealing with our suffering. We develop coping mechanisms like humor, and we learn to lean on friends and family members. We also learn how to express ourselves—and putting our suffering into words can help alleviate the pain.

Some of us get really good at suffering. And while it may sound like a strange thing to get 'good' at, suffering happens to be the foundational element for many (maybe most?) truly exceptional people.

I won't rattle off a list of historical figures from Gandhi to Mandela to convince you that this is true. It's obvious, isn’t it?

This idea has been on my mind. And you know how when something is on your mind, you start to notice it everywhere? I swear, in the past week alone, I've heard three of my favorite podcast personalities / generally impressive humans (endurance athlete, Rich Roll; author, Tim Ferriss; and lifespan/healthspan guru, Peter Attia) all describe the idea that if they have any superpower, it is that they have an unnatural endurance for handling pain—for dealing with suffering—over long periods of time.

Our character is forged in the fire of suffering. And what is true for our minds is also true for our bodies. Marathon runners know it. Swimmers know it. Weightlifters, too. We grow stronger through suffering. I've recently started experimenting with fasting. And it's the same idea. Our bodies are so used to comfort—sitting in climate-controlled rooms with full bellies—that we become weak as result. The suffering that is fasting can make us grow stronger—physically and mentally.

I am not a proponent of suffering for the sake of suffering, even given my propensity for self-deprivation. In fact, in some ways, I'm trying to go in the opposite direction—as I wrote about last week—by focusing more intentionally on periods of rest. Rather, my point here is that suffering is a very real and present part of life. The question is not IF we will suffer, but HOW we will deal with it when we do. There’s an opportunity here for a mindset shift. An opportunity to appreciate the suffering for what it is. Something that is making us stronger every day.

The path, it turns out, is through, not around.

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That's it for this week. I hope you don't have to suffer too much until I see you next week. But if you do, I hope you'll appreciate the good that is coming from it.

See you next week. — Greg


Photo: Unsplash.com

Extra credit: I've got about five podcasts jumbled in my head right now and I'm confusing what ideas came from each but let recommend a few conversations to check out.

Tim Ferriss & Essentialism author, Greg McKeown — some powerful stories in here about suffering.

Tim Ferriss & actor Hugh Jackman — Wow. This guy is pretty cool. There are two concepts in here—following your intuition, and manifesting what you’d like to become reality—that have my wheels spinning... think I might go there next.

Dr. Peter Attia on Finding Mastery — I really like Peter's work on lifespans/healthspans and he's one of the deepest thinkers on all things human mastery. Recommend any interviews that he's a part of.

Josh Wolfe & Jim O’Shaughnessy on Infinite Loops — This is one for the futurists out there. I really respect both Wolfe and O’Shaughnessy as thoughtful, practical, and well-informed commentators on everything from geopolitics to technology. Those topics and many more are covered in this one-hour discussion. Some seriously sharp guys—a pleasure to listen in.

Three other resources I'll mention:

David Brooks' book, The Road to Character (which, full disclosure, I haven't read yet, but Dr. Peter Attia mentioned it as one of the most transformational books he's ever read. So I've taken notice.)

Ryan Holiday's book, The Obstacle is the Way. I’m conscious that some of what I've discussed in this article is leaning into Stoicism and there is no one more associated today with Stoicism than Ryan Holiday. Check out his work if you haven't already.

Who Disrupts the Disrupters? Packy McCormick continues to blow my mind with his ability to take on really complicated topics—in this case, Web3, which is basically the next version of the internet, which will be powered by blockchain technology. Like most of Packy’s pieces, it’s a long read but worth it if you are as interested as I am in all things blockchain.

That's it! See you next week!