The Pain of [NOT] Doing: Life Lessons

2015 ImageThis post continues a series called 5 Life Lessons Learned from the PhD. I learned much about education and instructional design during my PhD journey, but the most valuable of all were the life lessons learned along the way. In this 5-part series, which began with Just Start, I challenge conventional thoughts by looking at life a different way.

Lesson #2: The Pain of Not Doing versus The Pain of Doing


I have come to believe, wholeheartedly, that true, magical progress happens when the pain of not doing something outweighs the pain of doing that thing. What do I mean by this?

Have you ever laid in bed at night wishing your day had gone differently? . . . wishing you had done something(s) you meant to do but never got around to doing?

I am fairly certain I am not the only one who struggles with these thoughts and feelings of regret over the “not doing.”

Much of the time I can simply push those not-yet-finished tasks out of my mind knowing that tomorrow is another day with another opportunity to tackle those things on my to-do list. Tomorrow, I promise myself, I will do! And, then I drift off to sleep.

Buzz Aldrin recently spoke to the Today Show about his health scare during his South Pole expedition. He was asked if he had started thinking, when his health became affected, maybe he shouldn’t have gone on the trip. His response was awe inspiring! The 86-year-old Aldrin said this:

“When turning back is about as difficult as pressing on, you press on, ’cause you’ve got an objective.” – Buzz Aldrin

Because he had not turned back, he had set a record for being “the oldest guy to the South Pole.” Aldrin enthusiastically stated, “See, now it was worth it, really!”

When the pain of not doing, or turning back as Aldrin put it, is about as difficult as actually doing, climbing that mountain, you discover a magical power deep inside yourself — a power to persevere, to overcome, to press on. This is when that true magical progress happens!

How did I learn the lesson?

There were times during that long dissertation journey of researching and writing that I would fall into bed late at night exhausted from my full-time day job, my evening mommy-of-two-young-kids duties, and the routine-around-the-house chores. Laying there in the dark, that nagging voice would remind me of all the work I had before me. I would lay there visualizing that proverbial mountain and me clinging to the rock, exhausted.

The pain of NOT getting up to continue up the dissertation mountain far outweighed the pain of just pulling myself out of bed to continue the climb. The pain of NOT being finished far outweighed the pain of finishing. The pursuit to overcome the greater of these two pains pushed me to press on!

After all, I had a clear objective, and now, in hindsight like Buzz Aldrin, I can see that continuing to climb that mountain was worth it, really!

So, what’s the life lesson?

This lesson, learned during my PhD dissertation journey, continues to apply over and over to new situations. There are days I have a mountain of to-dos. I try to focus on weighing out the pain of not doing those things compared to the pain of just getting things done.

The lesson here is that we must, before giving up due to the painful pursuit of an objective,  first consider the pain of not pressing on!

What are you not yet doing that you truly desire to do? Don’t turn around. Keep your eyes on the peak of the mountain, and press on!

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Mountain Peak image by Unsplash provided free and unrestricted in Canva.


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