We too often miss opportunities to grow because they feel bad.
When I was four years old, my older brothers gave me one task: figure out everything there is to know about Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. At the time, this was a brand new video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Being in Kindergarten for only half-days, I had the luxury of exploring every pixel of the fantasy world of Hyrule. And even at that tender age, I understood the importance of getting new gear and leveling up. When I did, I felt more powerful and confident in undertaking the next big task.
In today’s terms, I was the ultimate XP grinder. I’d beat the same opponents hundreds of times to earn enough experience points to level up my character.
I loved it.
Leveling up characters can become totally addictive. Role-playing video games (RPGs) mimic real life by allowing characters to become stronger or more adept at some skill through experience. In other words, the more you play the more powerful your character becomes. This caused me to care a great deal about doing the most mundane tasks, like killing the same bad guys over and over again.
What does it feel like when you finally level up? Euphoric. It feels like you’re dancing on the stars. It makes all the work you put into getting there feel totally worth it.
Of course, that euphoria quickly fades away and then you’re right back on the grinding train, doggedly focused on the next level up.
When it comes to real life, obviously there is no “leveling up”. There is no moment when you all-of-a-sudden gain a new skill, like the ability to dunk a basketball or do your taxes. These things happen gradually, with repeated effort.
Just like with video games, though, if you put in the effort the outcome is all but guaranteed. However, I think there is often something fundamentally different about “leveling up” in life compared to video games.
What I’ve noticed in the 30 or so years since Zelda II is that leveling up in real life typically begins with pain.
The pain of progress
Recently, I’ve been working on a project with a team of people to re-build an app. The scope is large, there are many stakeholders, and I’m feeling the pressure to produce a perfect product.
On top of that, having switched careers a couple of years ago, this is all very new to me. Being new to this world, there is a lot of learning to be done.
About a month ago, the project started going sideways. Naturally, this caused me to wonder who’s at fault. There was some finger-pointing, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d done all I could have to prevent this from happening in the first place. I quickly realized that I hadn’t.
As you can imagine, my heart sunk at this discovery. This was partly my fault. There were plenty of things I could have done differently.
Suddenly, I felt like an imposter. I felt like I was given a responsibility I didn’t deserve. I felt ashamed. I felt like I’d let my boss down, the team down, and myself down. I felt not good enough.
I felt terrible.
But then something curious happened. All the thoughts and emotions that were swirling around in my head began to slow. This is when I realized I had just noticed something incredibly valuable — something about me that I could improve.
I realized that I’d learned this lesson before, but it hadn’t been so clear to me then: self-doubt, shame, not feeling good enough — these were signposts telling me to turn in a new direction.
All this pain wasn’t meant to be dwelled upon. It was meant to be acted upon.
The courage to act
With video games, we don’t think of ourselves as the characters we’re controlling. We stand apart from them.
So, when our character lacks the necessary skill or power to accomplish a task, we don’t feel insecure, ashamed, or not good enough. We simply take this as a sign that we need to level up our character.
Then, we get down to work.
It’s a little bit different in real life, though, isn’t it?
When you hit a wall, when it’s you that needs to change, it doesn’t seem so simple, does it?
The fact is, I’ve been caught up in feelings of shame and insecurity for most of my life. Instead of acting on the causes of those emotions, I’ve simply dwelled on the emotions themselves.
As you can guess, this never got me anywhere.
When we notice that something needs to change, it’s natural to feel not good enough. It’s natural to feel like shit. The question is, what do we do about it?
Any way you look at it, this is going to be hard. Throughout my life, I’ve resisted change. My mind has stubbornly held onto past versions of myself like a life-raft on a stormy ocean.
The good news is that this becomes easier the more we do it, but it will always take courage.
Why do we need courage? Because courage is what helps us act in the face of our fear, shame, and embarrassment. There is nothing we can do about our pasts, but there is something we can do about the present.
If we have the courage to act on those painful thoughts and feelings, if we have the courage to change, life will become easier. We’ll work to improve skills that are lacking and prove to ourselves that purposeful growth is possible.
If we ignore those thoughts and feelings, or simply dwell on them, nothing will ever change.
This is why I think leveling up starts with pain. Pain is the flashing neon sign that something is wrong. And it’s begging us to move in a new direction.
Becoming your best self
Just like with characters in video games, we can set out to do the work that is required to improve — to “level up” — but it’s only by noticing what we lack that sets us down that course.
This is difficult. We all struggle with finding a balance between feeling good about ourselves and knowing we can be better.
This is why it’s so important to know that growth often begins with pain — with fear, shame, embarrassment, sadness. You’re not alone in those feelings. Everyone is feeling these constantly. And it’s those of us who have the courage to act in spite of those feelings, rather than dwell on those feelings, who continue to grow.
Don’t shy away from those negative thoughts and feelings, but don’t hold onto them, either. Take them for what they are — a signal that change is needed. Your mind is simply trying to motivate you to do something.
So the next time you feel terrible about your work, a relationship, or some other aspect of your life, recognize this as an opportunity to grow. Those feelings are simply trying to get you to do the work that will get you to that next level.
Thanks for reading!