“The dog on the rusty nail”


So, this happened …

As she approached the bus stop, desperately aiming for the shade just to get out of the damn hot sun, her heart missed a beat and she nearly changed her mind.

Her eyes were adjusting from the bright sunlight to the shade, and suddenly she could make out the shape of a massive dog lying there by the bench. She hated dogs.

She sat down on the bench anyway, as far from the dog as possible. But after a minute, she went from fearing the dog to being concerned about the dog.

“Is your dog OK,” she asked the owner.

“My dog? Yes he’s fine.”

“But it seems like something is wrong with him, he keeps flinching, yelping. It seems like he’s in pain.”

“No, he’s fi- . . . ohhhh, I know what it is. Yeah, he’s lying on a rusty nail, which is sticking out of the concrete over there. We often rest at this bus stop when it’s hot, so I’ve noticed it before.”

“That’s odd,” she said. ”If he’s clearly so uncomfortable, then why doesn’t he just move a bit to the side, and then sleep restfully?”

“Well obviously,” the man replied, “It doesn’t hurt enough!”

Simple Definition

The dog on the rusty nail: Sometimes we face situations where we are uncomfortable, but we don’t do anything about it. And the reason for this is simply that it doesn’t hurt enough.

Summarizing what it means

I love this story, and have told it dozens (hundreds?) of times, in various forms. It’s not mine, but in spite of searching, I haven’t managed to find an original version or an original author … instead I’ve found as many different versions as I’ve found sites which tell this story. This is my version.

The basic premise is really simple:

  • The dog is uncomfortable. It could easily move a little to the side and become comfortable. But it doesn’t move – it puts up with the discomfort, because that discomfort isn’t enough to compel the dog to move.

Let me rephrase that:

  • You are not comfortable, since there is something that is bothering you. Maybe you complain about it. You could do something about it, perhaps even eliminate it. You know what to do, but you don’t do anything. Because it doesn’t hurt enough.

Ah yes – it actually takes less effort to put up with the discomfort than to actually do something to make it better. That applies to the dog. That applies to me. That applies to your children and friends and staff and partner. And that applies to you.

This concept of “The dog on the rusty nail” is incredibly prevalent in our lives, and it’s holding you back from a better life.

Things to remember when you’re wanting to improve your life significantly, using this #hashtag-story:

  • Sometimes it doesn’t hurt enough because it really is not that important – so acknowledge that, and let go. You don’t have to act on everything that bothers you, but you shouldn’t drag it around with you either.
  • Realize that complaining about something is not the same as taking action. If you’re not taking action, it simply doesn’t hurt enough (no matter how much you convince yourself that it’s a big problem.)
  • You can help trigger action by “widening the hurt gap” (see below).

If this is all you have time to read right now, then just make sure you remember the points in this summary. But if you really want a better life, if you want to give yourself every chance of successfully making changes in your life for the better, then read on …

Discussing what it means

Taking action (or not)

Here are some scenarios which will be familiar to you:

  • She has put on weight. She breathes heavily after walking up the stairs, and doesn’t sleep well because of the snoring. She makes light jokes about her weight, and although she complains about it a fair amount (she really would prefer to lose weight) she isn’t actively trying. Even cutting back on junk food, and walking a little more, are options which could make a big difference. But right now “it doesn’t hurt enough”. (Yes it hurts, it just doesn’t hurt enough.)
  • He’s tired all the time. He works a lot of over-time in order to get through his task list each day (so his tiredness isn’t obvious to his boss). Somehow he is sort of coping, so he still isn’t prioritizing more sleep. Because “it doesn’t hurt enough”.
  • She hates her boss and her demanding clients. She is constantly threatening to walk out and quit. But she doesn’t. Because – in spite of her protestations – “it doesn’t hurt enough”.
  • Or when you wake up in the middle of the night, wanting to pee. It’s uncomfortable enough that you can’t fall asleep again, but not so bad that you are forced to leave your warm ‘blanket bubble’ to go to the bathroom. Eventually you get up, as the discomfort only increases, but you wasted time lying there, uncomfortable but inactive, getting neither sleep nor relief.
  • Or smokers who know it’s bad for them, they know it will eventually kill them, but right now it’s not uncomfortable enough to quit. The pleasure is high, the signs of illness are low or none. Unfortunately, by the time there are symptoms, by the time the ‘discomfort’ spikes, it’s too late.

No rusty nails

Of course, if someone thinks to themselves that it would be nice to learn another language, but they aren’t really bothered whether they do or don’t, and they don’t act on it – then that’s different.

In that case, there really isn’t a rusty nail.

It is more like choosing between #[Chicken or Fish], two similar choices where neither is particularly better than the other.

And there is nothing wrong with being in such a situation – you really don’t have to act on every whim that comes into your mind. None of us has time to fill our “every day” schedule with exercise and meditation, and working harder in our careers, and writing a book, and starting a side hustle, and learning a language and a music instrument, and getting good at a hobby, all while keeping strong relationships with friends, family and our partner.

Sometimes there is no rusty nail, and it’s OK not to do more.


But if there is complaining, then there is a rusty nail.

When someone around you is “The dog on the rusty nail”, perhaps you become a little frustrated with them? They are always complaining about how tired they are, or how much they want to lose weight, or to start learning a language, but they never seem to do anything about it. “Why don’t they just do something or shut up!” you think to yourself.

And when it’s you who’s complaining and yet still doing nothing about it, we can similarly be so critical of ourselves. Why don’t I stick to a diet? Why don’t I exercise at least once a week? We convince ourselves that this is the most uncomfortable rusty nail in the world, and we’re failing massively by not acting on it.

But the reality is, if we aren’t acting on it, we have to realise that the rusty nail simply isn’t as uncomfortable as we’ve convinced ourselves.

Don’t be confused between how much they (or you?) complain, and how badly they want the alternative. Complaints are sometimes used as an alternative to meaningful action, and are not a sign of the extent of genuine pain.

It’s amazing how people can convince themselves they’re doing something about the annoying rusty nail, when actually all they’re doing is complaining. That is not action. 

Letting go

So take some time to determine if this thing that you’re complaining about – internally or to others – is definitely something you want to act upon (in which case see below), or if it’s actually something that you know you won’t act on (in which case, stop complaining and let go!)

There is nothing wrong with letting go, with accepting the reality that this is something you’re not going to change. But if you aren’t going to let go, then do something about it.

I was actually discussing this with a friend yesterday (obviously this chapter is on my mind while I’m writing it) because he has recently left his job, and was thinking what he’d like to do while he has the time. Quite early in the discussion, “learn Chinese” came up, since he’s a foreigner living in Hong Kong, and would love to be able to speak with the locals. But in spite of the fact that he’s been here for years, he hasn’t started. Effectively, learning Chinese was his rusty nail all this time, but he had never been uncomfortable enough to trigger action.

When I pushed him a little on the topic, thinking about all the ways he might spend his time other than learning Chinese, he admitted that although there was an appeal to being able to speak Chinese, it just wasn’t his highest priority. There are so many more things he’d rather be doing, both in terms of wants and needs.

So I suggested he accept that he’s never (well, for the foreseeable future – but things can change) going to learn Chinese, he’s unlikely to want it enough, so it’s time to let go. He can think of Chinese as a “nice to have”, but he should eliminate all negative associations in his mind – no guilt, no pressure, no failure, no “should have”.

We could all do that. Take the time to think deeply about whether that rusty nail is really that important, moreso than all our other options. If it is, then take action. If not, then let go.

If you’ve decided not to let go, then let’s explore how to make ourselves get off that nail and to make things happen.

Carrot & Stick

What do we mean by “doesn’t hurt enough”?

The ‘hurt’ in this situation is the difference between what we’re feeling now, lying on this rusty nail, compared with how we’d feel (or more importantly, how we think we’d feel) if we moved a little to the side.

The Stick is the discomfort that we’re trying to get away from

Sometimes you’ve put on a lot of weight, but it’s winter and you’re dressing over it. Your weight doesn’t (currently) affect your fitness because you’re sitting in front of a computer all day. There isn’t enough ‘Stick’.

Sometimes, although it’s really painful where you’re at, the alternative is potentially even more painful. And I say ‘potentially’ because you don’t know.

  • “I hate this relationship, but I won’t leave because if I don’t find someone else, then that will be worse.”
  • “I hate my corporate job, but I won’t start my own business because of the threat of financial ruin.”
  • “I love playing the drums and want to put videos of myself on YouTube to share with people, but I’m scared of being mocked and laughed at.”

They say [1][2] that one of the most effective ways of quitting smoking is to have a heart attack. There’s nothing like a massive blood clot that puts you in hospital for a few days, to cut through the denial that smoking won’t affect you, or cut through the pretence that you don’t care about dying early.

The Carrot is the reward or benefit that we’re moving towards

If the Stick is the discomfort you’re feeling, then at the very least, the Carrot is a life without that discomfort. That’s only a starting point, but it’s a great starting point.

  • In a weight-loss scenario, the initial Carrot is being less embarrassed about your body, perhaps, or feeling less tired after walking for a short distance. But a bigger Carrot might be feeling proud of your body, feeling fit enough to run a little up the stairs and the boost that gives you, or it could be a life of deep and healing sleep every night.
  • Especially if you’re living in a city where lots of people around you speak a language you don’t really know, then an initial Carrot is not always being lost when people around you are talking. But the bigger Carrot is being proud of your new language, of starting to socialize with people in that language, of being complimented on your accent or how quickly your learned (or how doggedly you persisted in learning).

The Hurt Gap

Your goal, when you’re ready to push yourself into action (or when someone asks for your help to push them into action) is to focus on widening the gap between the Carrot and the Stick.

Start by focusing more on what you (they?) would have if you took action, and even how you would feel if you just made progress. Also further emphasize to yourself the discomfort and inconvenience of staying where you are now, and how it’s likely to get worse over time anyway.

The stronger the promise of the Carrot, and the stronger the push from the Stick, the more painful it is to just continue lying on the rusty nail. Widen that gap until you are compelled to take action. Make it hurt enough.

Boiling over

When you’re lying on a rusty nail, there are three possible outcomes:

  • The discomfort just gets less over time, and eventually you don’t even notice the rusty nail anymore. This can be through getting used to it, or actively making the decision to let go. Either way – it becomes a non-issue.
  • Or you can remain in a state of constant complaint, always going on about the rusty nail to yourself and others, but still not doing anything about it. And as mentioned, the constant complaining helps us stay in this state too long, because we convince ourselves we are taking action (complaining is action?) but it doesn’t get better.
  • Or things can boil over, and we just get up and do something about it. Perhaps you took the time to deliberately widen the hurt gap (as discussed above), or perhaps – although the pain wasn’t getting worse – your ability or desire to endure the pain just reached its limit. Or perhaps things really got worse. Whatever the trigger, the outcome is that you finally take action and deal with that damn rusty nail.

I recall resigning from a job … I was really unhappy, but for a variety of reasons, I hadn’t yet quit. It didn’t hurt enough. Nothing really changed over the months that followed – the people were the same, the situation was the same. I just started to find that the good things of the job were less meaningful to me, and the bad things started to annoy me more. Until I woke one morning, realising that I was really unhappy. It had reached the point where it did hurt enough. So I quit.

And what if someone just lies there on the nail, yelping?

Whether it’s you or someone you know, sometimes we just don’t take action.

I’ve discussed above what actions you can take to get things moving, including widening the hurt gap, or acknowledging that it’s not a priority and you can just let go.

But three important things to keep in mind:

  • It’s not your job nor your responsibility to change other people. (OK, if you’re a parent that’s a little different, but so many people are trying to change their partners or friends or colleagues.) If they want to change then support them, but don’t push them.
  • Similarly, don’t feel obliged to change if someone around you is pushing you. If you’re complaining too much and that’s why they’re pushing for change, then you should be aware of that, but ultimately you are in charge of your life.
  • Be patient – with yourself and with the others. Sometimes change takes time, sometimes we need to build the confidence before we can take on the challenges of change. Most certainly don’t be too critical of yourself or others if the change doesn’t come fast enough. (Although if your frustration at your slow pace of change is part of your rusty nail, then use that to take more action.)

In such a situation, whether it’s yours or another’s, get the person to acknowledge that if there isn’t action, then it clearly doesn’t hurt enough (no matter how much complaining takes place). Remember always that when people are in denial, challenging them on this can upset them!

Discuss what’s bothering them (you?), what their limits are, what the alternatives are, help them see what’s scary and what’s appealing about these alternatives. But try drop the agenda, try not to push anyone (except yourself) into any direction, but do help them get clarity on the direction they want.

From your personal point of view, let’s talk about what the most important thing is to remember in the context of “The dog on the rusty nail” …

Making it personal

It’s great that you now understand what “The dog on the rusty nail” represents. It’s good that you appreciate we can actually make things happen by working on widening the discomfort gap. And it’s important to understand that sometimes when you’re lying on a rusty nail, it’s better to let go and forget it, rather than trying to tackle the problem.

But the most important part of this #hashtag-story is to be able to flag each it happens in your own life, and thereby cut through the denial.

This means accepting that if you’re not actively trying to get off the rusty nail (and complaining doesn’t count as actively doing something!) then you need to work out whether you’re in denial about how big a problem it is in your life.

And if you’re convinced it’s a massive problem, but you’re still not doing something about it, try to understand what other mental programming you’ve got running in the background. Why are you letting yourself endure this problem? What excuses are you giving yourself for not taking action?

For example, I’m sure we’ve all heard someone explain that they do want to give up smoking, but this is a bad time, and as soon as things improve, then they will give up. But life always has stresses, and they never seem to get around to quitting.

But in the meantime, just keep on flagging it when it happens. Remind yourself that you’re on a rusty nail, and not doing anything about. Over time, the constant flagging of the rusty nail might be what starts to annoy you enough to boil over and start taking action.

And of course the constant flagging reminds you that a solution to the discomfort exists, you could just get up and move to the side a little. You can do that now.

So what are the rusty nails that you’re lying on, right now?

Is it around physical health, or sleep? Is it around a habit that you want to maintain, but aren’t? Something you’d like to stop doing? Does it have anything to do with your job or your primary relationship?

Write down a few. (Yes, I said ‘write’ not ‘think’.)

And then for each, consider what small steps you can take to start getting off that nail.

Now would be a great time to read #[Hang the guitar within reach] and #[One push-up a day].

Get off that damn nail!

Related stories

#[Chicken or Fish]

#[Sometimes Kitt was sh*t]

#[Still not learning Chinese]

#[Quitting brings it all out]

#[One push-up a day]

#[A Punch is just a Punch]

Headline Picture Credit