Pain + Reflection = Progress

In his book, “Principles”, Ray Dalio discusses the necessity of failure and frustration for improving problem solving abilities. He provides the simple equation Pain + Reflection=Progress to show the path to improvement when challenged. To instill this process in his employees, he created a “pain button” app. They are prompted to open the app and hit the button when at an impasse or feeling frustrated. The “pain button” leads to a series of questions that allow you to remove emotion and audit your experience. 

We are typically terrible at making decisions and being objective when we are caught in the moment of struggle or conflict. We typically default to a threat response which may include deflecting, shielding our ego, or over blaming ourselves for something outside of our control. Developing a default reflection process like the “pain button” provides two major advantages for problem solving. ⁠⠀

First, assigning a protocol to replace an emotional reaction helps to create productive action out of struggle. In situations where we may be physiologically prone to lash out, freeze or run away from the problem, it gives us an embedded first step. This saves us from our knee jerk instincts. This to fall back on replaces our instinct with a more productive prefabricated process. ⁠⠀

Second, it gives us a way to use the situation to grow. The questions that follow help to shift emotion to an objective review. Adam Smith discussed the power of the “impartial spectator”, putting yourself in a position to analyze a situation as if you had no “skin in the game”. Being able to zoom out to view a problem outside of the lens of yourself is a superpower. This process can be incredibly helpful in a group setting as well. 

The best teams feel safe admitting fault and growing together from it. In medicine, it is routine to hold Morbidity and Mortality (M&M) Conferences in which deaths and adverse outcomes are peer reviewed to highlight areas of error and omission in order to promote better practice. Whether individual or collective, these “post-mortem” evaluation protocols should allow the problem to be seen with a wider lens leading to a better audit of the situation and ideally a more productive path forward. 

Creating a default evaluation process when we feel the pain of a non-optimal outcome creates a window of opportunity for growth. Some tactics to employ this include personal journaling or pre-set team meetings where a platform is set to discuss the processes outlining positive and negative outcomes. Making this a habit can protect against our human instinct to hide or blame something outside of our control. The faster we feel protected to admit we are wrong, the faster we can grow. If we can do this among our peers and colleagues it gives the added bonus of support and synergy. Vulnerability is essential to personal growth and the development of effective teams. Don’t run from pain, celebrate it as a stimulus for progress.

  • Anthony Iannarino, DPT, CSCS

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