The Capacity to Suffer

Rob Thomas
2 min readMay 8, 2019

Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984, reviving the circus in a modern form. Attracting, training, and retaining the best acrobats is essential, as the show is only as good as the talent. Interestingly, the biggest cause of attrition is injury. But, there is no obvious way to prevent injuries, when you are asking performers to do superhuman things every day.

A few years back, given recurring injuries that began to impact shows, Cirque du Soleil, created an understudy program, whereby each acrobat would learn how to do the performances of other acrobats, in case there was an injury. For the understudies, it was a grueling process to learn a new skill. They had to be willing to fail for extended periods of time, as they trained their body in a new way.

The unexpected outcome of the understudy program was a 30% reduction in injuries. It turns out that when acrobats learned a new skill, their bodies became more resilient and less over-worked in the same spots; they became strong in the weak places. Their willingness to suffer through the re-training, secured the future of the franchise.

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Tom Russo, the famed investor, frequently talks about the great executives and companies that he has observed in his career. He says the one thing they all have in common is ‘the capacity to suffer’. Essentially, a willingness to endure and do the right things, even before results are realized. When results are not evident, there will be criticism, complaints, accusations, and a risk of losing support (from the board, investors, employees, etc). But, the great teams persist, with a noted level of grit.

Russo likes to use the example of Nestle, which has continually demonstrated a capacity to suffer. Their bet on Nespresso took 15 years to deliver a profit. That’s 15 years of second-guessing and suffering, which has now turned into a massive market success. The moral is simple: A continuous commitment to do the right things, and the patience to deliver the outcomes, will lead to suffering. But, those with the capacity to suffer, can deliver enduring results.

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Suffering begets success. In your current struggle, it’s important to know if you are simply on the wrong path, or if you need the patience and grit to see it through. Most people will give up, but those with the capacity to suffer are typically remembered. And, they become strong in the weak places along the way.

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Rob Thomas

Author of ‘The AI Ladder’, ‘The End of Tech Companies’ & ‘Big Data Revolution’ amzn.to/2uVu84R.