The key to happiness and success is suffering.
The most content, most at ease with themselves, and most impressive people I know all share a willingness to suffer. Some are really book smart. Some aren’t. Some have great emotional intelligence. Some don’t. Some have rich parents. Some have poor parents. Some come from the right schools. Some come from no school. But they all share that one key component.
They are all willing to be uncomfortable in the pursuit of their goals.
And that’s a hard thing to swallow for a lot of people, for a number of reasons.
To start, it’s the natural inclination of people to avoid hard things. It’s easier to sit on the couch in your free time. It’s easier to stay in the job you don’t like. It’s easier to do the things your parents, your friends, and your coworkers define as success than it is to actually go after something. And because of that, even beginning to explore something hard can seem impossible for many people.
That’s why big opportunities in life often elude people. Very few people are going to live a life for many years without suffering and without risk and then dive into something that could be life-changing, but will ask more of them than they ever thought they had in them. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to start somewhere.
If you’re reading this, you probably know me from Ranger Up, or Range 15, or maybe Diesel Jack Media. And you might know about how Ranger Up started. I’ve given dozens of interviews about quitting my Fortune 100 gig at John Deere on the eve of a promotion and diving full force into life as an entrepreneur. As I’ve said many times, it was extremely hard. I almost went bankrupt. I emptied my bank account, my 401(k). I ran up credit cards. I gutted it out. And at some point, Ranger Up became a pretty successful company and I had “the great American entrepreneur story” going.
But that story actually isn’t all that important. The important part of that story is the fact that nowhere in my mind did I consider the possibility of failure. I knew I didn’t have the right answer yet, but I knew I could figure it out if I worked hard enough. Not thought it. Knew it.
That’s a lot of confidence for a guy who had never run a business and by all reasonable measures was failing. So where does that come from?
For me, it was a progression that started in the late 80s with Judo.
I started Judo because we had recently moved back to the U.S. after living my formative years in Italy, and I was getting my ass kicked every day because I was the new weird kid who could speak Italian. Karate Kid 2 had just come out and I wanted to do Karate. Unfortunately, the closest karate place was 45 minutes away, but there was a judo place nearby, so I had to “settle” for it. I figured after a few lessons, I’d be lethal.
I was not.
I was terrible.
In fact, while most kids got their yellow belt in 6 months, and just about everyone got their yellow belt after a year, it took me a year and a half. Incidentally, that’s how long it took me to win my first match. A year and a half of failure after failure after failure.
When they finally promoted me, I had no illusion that I had mastered anything. In fact, I knew I sucked now more than ever. I wasn’t even thinking about the kids from school anymore. That problem had kind of faded away without me even getting to fight anyone. A new Greek kid moved into the neighborhood, and they started picking on him instead.
But there was a kid, Jake, who was about four years older than us, and he was a purple belt. To me, he was a ninja. The things he could do to people were amazing. When we tried anything on him, we’d be flying through the air and he wouldn’t even be breaking a sweat. He was savaging adults like they were nothing. I wanted to be like that.
I had only won one match in a year and a half. He was my unobtainable target.
I set goals.
Unfortunately, he left the sport before I was able to beat him, but I far surpassed his skill level. My judo career would take me to some really cool places. I traveled. I beat guys that would go on to represent us in the Olympics and on world teams. I got to compete on the Army Judo team later in life.
Judo led to wrestling. I was thirteen years old my freshman year on the first varsity team our school had ever had. Because we were brand new, even though I had never wrestled, my judo made me good enough to start. I got obliterated that entire year. I won a handful of matches, but mostly just got embarrassed. At the end of the season, we had the Sectional Tournament. We’d never had a guy place in our previous two club seasons. It seemed impossible. Everyone was so much better than we were.
I caught a pigtail, which meant I had to win a match just to make it into the tournament. Lo and behold, I was the first match of the tournament as one of three pigtails. I lost. I sat for two days as the tournament unfolded, a loser. The kids that placed were a different species. They moved differently. They acted differently. They carried themselves differently. I wanted to be them. I wanted to win this thing.
I had already learned from Judo that there was a process and that to get what you wanted, you had to embrace the process. I was too weak compared to the other kids, so I started lifting. I got tired when the older kids didn’t, so I started running. I hated running, but I joined cross country. I needed more wrestling iterations, so I went to wrestling camp that summer.
I wanted to stand on top of that podium and I knew I had to suffer to get there. I had to be stronger. I had to be tougher. I had to be better. I also realized that the best kids cut weight. That came at a price. My senior year I cut from 171 to 140.
I was not a normal kid. I prioritized wrestling over fun, partying, girls, whatever.
And I got to stand on that podium the next year. Not at the top. That would take two more years of suffering. But I got there too. And I got to stand on many other podiums throughout my wrestling career.
And when I was that guy - when I was a sixteen-year-old senior doing the things I had dreamed about four years earlier - some guys who hadn’t paid that price would say things like, “You’re just good at this.” or “Not everyone is as lucky as you.”
I learned two things that still drive me today:
- Goals are attainable for those willing to pay the price of suffering.
- Losers make excuses for why they didn’t get it done.
I didn’t hit all my goals in wrestling. I wanted to win the state championship. I lost in the semi-finals to the eventual champ by a hair. If I had been sharper on one or two exchanges I could have been there. That hurt.
But what I told myself then, a little lower on the podium, and what I tell myself now when I fall short of any goal is “that guy did more to win than I did.” He worked harder. He sacrificed more. He suffered more. He earned it. I earned exactly what I had achieved. Nothing more. Nothing less.
I went to West Point. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. I was scared. I wasn’t good enough. It felt impossible. But I knew that feeling. Judo. Wrestling. Now this.
Ranger School scared the hell out of me. I had to do it.
Deployment. Leaving the military. Business School. Entering the Corporate world.
Every single event was hard. Every single one required risk, change, and a new variety of suffering.
Every change was scary. I didn’t know how to get through it. But I knew I could.
Because the roadmap is the same every time. Set the goal. Suffer through the pain. Get stronger every day. Achieve the goal.
By the time I quit John Deere to start Ranger Up, success was a foregone conclusion. The only thing I didn’t know was how much failure, pain, and suffering I was going to endure on my way to that success.
That’s true for most everyone I know.
Tim Kennedy’s young life was plagued with challenges most of you can’t imagine. People look at him now and think he’s some kind of adonis that has had opportunities handed to him. He had it rough. Health issues. Relationship issues. Personal failures. In fact, if you took a snapshot of where he was at 23, compared to where you were (or will be) at 23, I can almost guarantee you would not trade places with him.
But he has set and sought goals with relentless abandon, smashing through obstacles by sheer force of will, leading him to do things that border on the superhuman. And when he has fallen short, like missing out on the chance for the UFC Championship, he has taken personal responsibility, and set the next goal.
When I met Vincent Vargas, one of the first things he told me was that he was going to make it in Hollywood. He had never been in a movie. He had no acting chops at the time. He was a former Ranger, boxer, and baseball player, and I’ll be honest, I thought it was a stretch. But fuck me, because I was wrong. Vince systematically set goals for himself. He made videos. He wrote books. He took small roles. He jumped at opportunities. He turned down high paying jobs in regular industries that would have made his life easier in order to chase his dream. He fought like hell. He suffered a lot. Stress. Uncertainty. That was his playground. We talked about it often.
And now he is on his third season of Mayans FC, just released a Christmas movie, and has limitless opportunities.
I can go on. Mark Gross from Oak Grove Technologies had to fight like hell in the early years of his business, reinventing himself several times. He and I would get coffee every now and then and he’d show me manuals for IT instruction for the DOD, which was one of his first contracts, and the thing that kept his doors open. He was so excited about it, and I remember wondering how he could scale this idea. But he knew he could and he was willing to pay the price in time and money. Now he’s running multinational operations surrounded by an incredible staff in one of the most professional and skilled contracting firms I’ve ever seen.
Jason Van Camp from Mission Six Zero was running on empty when he started his firm. He was trying like hell, but he had no clients. NONE. Until he landed the New York Jets. And the way he landed the Jets is one of the best stories I have ever heard, but it’s not mine to tell. I’ll just say that he was either leaving that building with a client or on a stretcher and in handcuffs. And when you ask him why he thought he could succeed, he cites suffering, or as he calls it, Deliberate Discomfort. For him that path was football, West Point, Ranger School, Special Forces, injury, leaving the military, finding a new mission.
Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Thomas Edison. Oprah Winfrey. Walt Disney.
Marred with failure for years before achieving success.
The more you look around, the more you see that the people that embrace suffering find success at a far greater pace than people who do not.
But even when they fall short. When they don’t get what they want. When they lose the match, miss out on the championship, don’t grow their business the way they intended, or in some other way miss their goal, they are still happier. Because they know. They know who they are and what they are capable of.
They set a goal. They went for it. They left it all on the table. And whatever they ended up with is what they deserved. No more. No less.
There’s incredible comfort in that.
When you choose to suffer in pursuit of a goal, for better or for worse, you erase regret. You don’t wonder if you could do something. You do it. Or you fall short. But you know.
Range 15 will always be a special moment in my life because it brought together a group of guys that had been told by Hollywood that they could not make a film. None of us knew anything. But we all knew we could do it. And the suffering and pain and tenacity and relentless drive that went into that film was brilliant. I don’t care if you love the movie or hate it. I’m here to tell you that the fact that it even exists is amazing.
We set a goal. We mowed down barriers. We broke the rules. We made a Hollywood movie.
It reminded me that whenever you want to do something, you have to go for it. Not think about it. Not discuss it. Not spend years planning for it. Just go.
This February, after almost 14 years of running Ranger Up, I told my board I needed to do something else. I wanted to make the greatest marketing agency on the planet.
I stepped out once again into the unknown, during a pandemic, to found Diesel Jack Media.
I knew less than nothing. I had never run an agency. I didn’t know how to run an agency. But I had a vision for what an agency should be, and I knew I had never encountered it yet. I knew I needed a pretty good staff to run one the way I wanted to, so I reached out to a group of people I had been extremely impressed with over the years and asked if they wanted to join my team. Seven of them said yes. So I went all in.
I’ve worked harder this year than I think I ever have in my life.
It’s been incredibly uncomfortable, stress-filled, and scary.
And surrounded by late nights, a steep learning curve, money flying out the door, and every other challenge that you can imagine, it’s been the happiest I’ve been in ages, and we’ve built a pretty awesome little company.
Sometimes, it’s just time for the next impossible task.
Easy won’t make you happy.