The Simple Formula of Progress

Today’s wisdom comes from two people from different walks of life. One is an American billionaire investor, and the other one is a Buddhist nun.

We all experience psychological pain from time to time. I’m not talking about mental disorders like a major depression but the discomfort that happens as a result of unmet desires, challenges, and failures.

How to Deal with Pain

Our default way of dealing with pain is to get rid of it as soon as possible. We do that in various ways.

  • We escape it with distraction.
  • We numb ourselves with depressants like alcohol.
  • We act on our pain by expressing it.

Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, calls our default reaction “scratching our itch” in her audio-program Getting Unstuck. Scratching our itch relieves the discomfort at that moment, but it makes things worse in the long term.

Our Default Behavior Reinforces Our Pain

David Hawkins mentions two ways to escape our pain in his book Letting Go, suppressing and expressing.

When we suppress our pain, we escape it with distractions or depressants like alcohol. When we express our pain, we react to the cause of the pain. That might be screaming at a family member or a colleague.

Even though expressing our pain feels good and relaxing at the moment, it reinforces our pain. We feel it more intensely the next time. As a result, we need to express it with greater intensity.

The same is true of suppressing our pain. We need greater doses every time we suppress our pain. We need more distraction or depressants not to feel the pain the next time.

Staying with the Pain

David Hawkins recommends that we stay with the pain without suppressing, expressing, or trying to change it in any other way. He calls this the Letting Go Method.

When you stay with the discomfort, it subsides gradually. The next time it comes up, it becomes less intense. Eventually, it disappears altogether.

The Formula of Progress

Ray Dalio, an American billionaire investor, defines the formula of progress as “Pain + Reflection” in his book Principles.

Pain + Reflection = Progress

When we escape our pain by suppressing or expressing it, we miss the chance to reflect on it. As a result, we lose the opportunity to make progress in our lives. That’s why we end up running in circles, repeating the same mistakes over and over, and stay stuck.

Accelerating Our Progress

According to Dalio’s formula, we make progress by facing our pain, but we can accelerate the process even more by going toward the eye of the storm. That is taking challenges that are outside of our comfort zone, which would benefit us if we succeed.

Reflecting On Our Lives Regularly

Taking the time to ask ourselves a few questions and reflecting on them at the end of each day is an easy yet worthwhile practice to make progress in our lives. Nowadays, I ask myself two questions at the end of each day.

  • What was good today?
  • What could be better?

I try to come up with more or less three answers to both questions. I acknowledge what was good on a given day, but also what needs to get improved. I think what I can do about those points of improvements.

It’s also interesting to do the same exercise at the end of each week, month, quarter, and year. The end of a year is an excellent opportunity to evaluate the past year and come up with new goals for the next year.


We get stuck in our lives because we escape our pain. We all have different strategies to do that. Some of us distract themselves, others numb themselves, yet others express their pain. Each method reinforces the pain and makes it more intense the next time.

The way to cure our pain is to stay with it, face it, and to reflect on it. That’s how we get unstuck and make progress in our lives.

We can even accelerate our progress by moving toward the eye of the storm. That is taking challenges out of our comfort zone, which benefit us if we succeed.