After inspecting my ankle, the doctor told me to strengthen it by doing a hundred calf raises a day. I try to do them whenever a few minutes present themselves: when soup is heating, coffee is brewing, or something is downloading.
After a few dozen reps, the calves really start to burn. I hadn’t done calf raises for years, and it turns out my relationship to that burning is very different than it used to be. Having done a fair bit of weight training since then, I hadn’t quite realized that I now enjoy the burning sensation of fatiguing muscles. I’ve come to know it as the feeling that goes with getting stronger.
I used to hate this same feeling. It was the feeling of slogging through the final laps in gym class, dying to hear the buzzer go. It was the feeling of awkwardly holding up a plank while I waited for my dad to put in all the screws.
Interestingly, the physical side of this muscle-burn feeling is the same as it ever was. It’s still uncomfortable. It’s still a relief when I can stop and rest. But my psychological relationship to it has completely reversed.
Instead of trying to escape from, ignore, or stop the burning, as I once did in Phys Ed class, I settle into it willingly, like the heat from a sauna. I let it build and intensify as I push on, without trying to defend against it, and that intensity is exhilarating. Even though it burns, it feels like strength, capability, progress.
I guess that’s what all those 1980s television aerobics instructors meant when they commanded us to “Feel the burn!” If you’re going to be making progress, you’re going to be feeling a burn. So you might as well come to it willingly, embracing it as the intense feeling of making long-term gains, rather than a punishing side-effect we want to feel as little of as possible.
There seems to be an equivalent “burn” with all forms of personal boundary-pushing, a tension or discomfort that comes with all attempts to reach higher-hanging fruit. Getting anywhere with public speaking entails walking and talking through the burn of nerves. Creative work entails the burn of completing mediocre pieces of work, and showing them to people. Entrepreneurship entails the burn of working under the risk of failure and rejection.
In every endeavor that isn’t already easy for you, progress requires you to move into certain uncomfortable feelings with regularity. So it makes sense, if you can, to interpret those feelings as good, rewarding, and reassuring—even though they aren’t, in and of themselves, pleasant.
To do that we have to recognize the burn as it happens, and remember to let ourselves dwell in it as we carry on our work, without our usual contentiousness toward it.
As the burn becomes more familiar, you start to find a certain second-level pleasure in it. The burn can feel good, but not if you still resent it. I’ve brought this perspective to weights for a long time now, but recently I’m trying to “feel the burn” on purpose in other areas.
Lo and behold, there’s a burn everywhere I look. I experience a psychological “burn” whenever I carry on writing an article that feels stuck or bogged down. It feels hard, intense, not quite safe. Part of me is dying to pull the ripcord: File – Save – Exit. But another part of me is excited to be wading through this new, seemingly forbidden territory.
The burn intensifies every time I stride a little further than normal—when I decide, for example, to give an article another half hour beyond the point at which I was about to quit. The more I let myself feel that particular burn, the more it makes me feel capable and confident rather than annoyed or discouraged. It’s still uncomfortable, but it quickly becomes exhilarating too.
When you make room for the burn, you realize that it’s not dangerous, just intense, and that intensity can energize the work once you stop seeing it as undesirable.
My Depth Year project is teaching me how much lies just beyond the point at which I usually pack in my efforts. That’s the secret to growth as far as I can tell: carry everything past the point you’d normally quit, even just a small distance, and do that regularly. Not a new idea, but I’d never thought much about how it feels to do that.
When you reach one of these points and press on, something in your mind or body burns. And of course it does—things are getting stretched, tested, rebuilt.
Think about how much hinges on our relationship to “the burn” in all its forms: the outcomes of our goals, our sense of what’s possible, our self-esteem, our incomes, our health, how good our “best” ends up being, and every other status quo in our personal lives.
When it comes to personal growth, in any avenue, new territory burns. Get to know the burn. Feel the burn. Enjoy the burn.