It’s an amazing transformation. Animation movies show a larva spinning itself into a cocoon that eventually bursts open to reveal a beautiful, colorful butterfly. It flaps its wings twice before taking flight the third time, officially signaling that its transformation is complete.
But that’s how the metamorphosis plays out. In real life, it’s actually painful and risky.
Here’s what really happens.
Each time a little caterpillar outgrows its current skin, it molts, which means it sheds its old skin to make way for new growth. After it molts about five times, the larva hangs upside down from a twig or a leaf, and spins a silky cocoon around itself or molts into a shiny chrysalis.
Inside this cocoon or chrysalis, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve its tissues. If you would cut open the cocoon at the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out.
But the entire contents of the pupa don’t dissolve. The imaginal discs, a highly organized group of cells, survive the digesting process. These discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the formation of wings, antennae, legs, eyes, and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth.
The butterfly slowly exits the cocoon (it doesn’t free itself at once like movies show), and this process of exiting the cocoon strengthens its muscles to function optimally in the world.
If the metamorphosis is interfered with, if the cocoon is split open for any reason, or if the chrysalis falls to the ground, the caterpillar often dies.
For a caterpillar, metamorphosing into a butterfly is a painful process. Yet, it has no choice, unless it fails to spin a cocoon, in which case, it remains a caterpillar until death.
The Loathing of Pain
As Homo Sapiens, we’re lucky that our bodies don’t have to undergo a painful metamorphosis.
We also prefer to avoid pain, which is a good thing. It’s why we don’t put our hands in a fire, or jump from the first story of a building, or get into relationships when we know we’ll get hurt (although I’m not quite sure about the last one).
This subconscious behavior to avoid anything painful originates in the amygdala, the part of our brain that governs our fight-or-flight response. The amygdala limits or overrides other brain parts when we face potential threats and is critical to our survival.
When our hunter-gatherer ancestors unexpectedly spotted a predator, they didn’t apply reason or logic, they simply fled for their lives. When we find ourselves in the path of an oncoming vehicle, we don’t use our knowledge of math to calculate its speed and distance. We get out of the way as fast as we can.
That’s the good part.
The not-so-good part is that the amygdala also activates when we want to engage in any task that departs from our usual, safe routines. Any situation where we foresee even a hint of pain sets off alarm bells and the amygdala overrides every part of the brain to force us to avoid the activity.
As a result, we often do what’s easy. And many times, this comes at the expense of what’s useful. We mindlessly scroll the web to conduct “research” for an article instead of writing it. We deliberately work longer hours so that we can avoid exercise without feeling guilty about it. We give every unnecessary email the same attention we would give an email from our boss instead of dedicating time to an important project.
We don’t just choose easier options; sometimes we even manufacture them to keep ourselves busy and avoid tasks that could potentially cause us discomfort.
Here’s a personal example.
For months now, I’ve been struggling to make any headway with my larval podcast. In fact, I’ve ignored it for extended periods of time in favor of writing more articles, since writing is easier than podcasting for me. I tell myself that I’m creating content, so it’s okay.
But it’s not okay. The easy way out offers short-term comfort but also forces us to remain caterpillars. And in the long term, it leads to regret, sourness, and even a feeling of anger.
Pain sucks. But it also leads to growth. As Anangsha Alammyan highlighted, pain can help you recognize pleasure, teach you to live in the present moment, and enable you to form meaningful social bonds.
Pain also makes you a better version of yourself. When the larva endures pain, it transforms into a beautiful butterfly. When your muscles feel pained after a workout, they build strength.
Likewise, it’s only when you do something that causes discomfort in the short term that you experience growth (as long as the task doesn’t cause physical or emotional harm).
“If you’re evenly split on a difficult decision, take the path more painful in the short term.” — Naval Ravikant
The brain has a tendency to overvalue short-term comfort and happiness, and the only way to cancel this tendency is to lean into the pain, to embrace it.
“But it’s impossible to embrace pain.”
You’re right. It is. Not because you’re lazy or incapable, but because the amygdala won’t let you.
The key is to make your brain hit the snooze button each time the amygdala sounds the alarm bell. And the best way to do this is to break a Herculean task into smaller, simpler ones that you can be consistent with.
If writing 1000 words a day feels painful, write just 100 words daily for a week.
If lifting weights feels agonizing, do just five light reps daily for a week.
If saving money is a struggle, save just five percent of your monthly income for three months.
When you get comfortable with this, stretch yourself gently. Increase your daily writing goal by 50 words each week. Increase the weights you lift by five pounds each week. Start saving ten percent of your income each month.
This increases your threshold for pain without waking the amygdala. Slowly, what’s difficult becomes easy, and what’s easy turns into a habit. And in the long term, these results compound.
At the end of six months, you’ll be lifting weights well over 100 pounds. You’ll be writing well over 1,000 words daily without breaking into a sweat (and will have written over 100,000 words, or the content for two books).
And you’ll have saved about 8 percent of your income or almost half of a month’s salary. Even if you do nothing else but stick with saving 8 percent, you’ll save a month’s worth of salary at the end of the year! (Do the math if you find it hard to believe. It adds up!)
The more progress you witness, the less likely you’ll be to avoid the task that appeared painful in the beginning. Progress is the ultimate antidote to fear, laziness, and procrastination.
I’ve simplified my outlook towards my podcast. Instead of getting overwhelmed by questions like how to build traffic and how to get on the radar of potential guests, I just dedicate 30 minutes to the podcast each day. 15 of those minutes are spent thinking, and the remaining 15 are spent taking one tiny action. That’s all.
All You Need to Know
A caterpillar doesn’t get a second chance to pupate. But you do.
You get chances over and over again to try, fail, learn, and try again. You can take as long as you want. You can start slow and then build momentum like a snowball that gathers speed as it rolls downhill.
Self-improvement is incredibly gratifying, and it cascades into every other aspect of your life. And it’s also within your reach.
The only person worth competing with is yourself. The only transformational story you should truly care about is your own. And you can write an amazing “before-and-after” story if you put in the effort to do what’s painful in the “during” stage.
This doesn’t take much. Simply break a difficult task into easier sub-tasks and show up every day. Focus on consistency more than authenticity or the results.
Even if you don’t turn into a butterfly, you’ll turn into a shiny silkworm.