The Ecstasy of Agony: Why a Life of Physical Striving is More Fulfilling

By: Nathaniel Hancock

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It’s not rocket science that human beings prefer pleasure to pain. Sigmund Freud called this phenomenon (originally laid out in Epicureanism) the pleasure principle. In short, not only do we seek pleasure to satisfy our needs, Freud argued, but we also work towards avoiding pain in our day-to-day experience.

On the surface, Freud’s logic makes sense. After all, who doesn’t prefer a hot chocolate by the fire to stepping on legos or slipping on ice? But at a deeper level, it’s not irrational to embrace a certain degree of targeted hardship and even pain to unlock the rewards of joyful achievement that go beyond mere pleasure. In this vein, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi stated in 1990:

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

There were moments in my last training block that were anything but joyful or smile-inducing. There were Dayquil sessions, vomiting sessions, and nosebleed sessions – and sometimes all three at once. That said, the fact that months ago I had embraced a big, meaningful goal at a deep level empowered me to implement this quote attributed to Winston Churchill:

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

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From the outside, some may view my strength journey as a long list of failures. I failed to take the overall NPC Utah title (bodybuilding) in 2000. I failed to place in the top five at the NPC USA Championships in 2001. I tore my ACL in 2006. I totaled in the 1300s and placed below the middle of the pack at my first USAPL Raw Nationals in Denver in 2014 (Layne Norton won with a 1715 total). I ruptured my biceps tendon while deadlifting in 2020. I failed to secure a sponsorship with a major protein bar company in 2021. I failed to win the USAPL M1 (40-49) national title for my weight class in both 2018 and 2022. I’ve never been interviewed by a major powerlifting podcast. The list goes on.

And yet – and this is the key – I never lost my enthusiasm for training. I never gave up. Through baby births, life stresses, aging, and moves across the globe, I never stopped giving every session my all. And this is why I view my journey as a success.

The greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, described success as follows:

“I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And this is why I succeed.”

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On April 29, 2023, I willed into existence the powerlifting meet of my life in Salt Lake City, Utah. For the second meet in a row under the tutelage of Reactive Training Systems coach Mike Tuchscherer, I pulled off the “unicorn meet” by going nine-for-nine on attempts and coming away with four personal bests (PBs). I totaled 775 kilos (1708.5 lbs.) to tie the second-best drug-tested total in the world at my weight (220 lbs.) and age group (45-49) per the Open Powerlifting website. After my 650-lb. squat, I wept tears of joy under a squat rack in the warm-up area as I pondered what I had invested to get this far.

A thought from a recent sermon came to mind:

“[…] there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains […] on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy” (Alma 36:21).

Intense highs and awful lows – sounds a bit like life, doesn’t it? The trick is finding joy in the journey and embracing gratitude for the ride. And, of course, being willing to commit to a course of action that will result in becoming the person you want to be (even if not necessarily achieving every one of your ultimate strength goals).

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I’d be lying if I claimed I was over the emotional high from that special meet (I am not). Meanwhile, my strength journey continues, and it is time once again to get to work. I have already (with Mike T.) begun laying the groundwork for the next step on my path. Regardless of where this all leads, I can honestly state that I have embraced a life of work, determination, and persistence, and that this choice has led to more meaningful life experiences. I agree wholeheartedly with ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes:

“We have killed our souls with comfort instead of seeking fulfillment and achievement.”

No matter what your stretch goal is, I want you to experience what I did on April 29 as I broke the 1700 barrier after a dozen years of consistent powerlifting training. Whether that “absolute dream” total for you is 800 or 2,000, I hope you decide to keep after it, year after year. You’ll be amazed at what you are capable of simply by refusing to quit again and again. And maybe, just maybe, you too will discover this hidden truth: if you strive long enough, the agony will eventually translate into ecstasy.

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