The picture above is me wading into a random river on day 2 of 6 hiking over 100 mi on the Appalachian trail. I jumped in way over my head. I’ve never hiked with a backpack, never mind up and down mountains for 10 hours a day, never slept alone in the woods, never drank water from streams, and never carried all the food I’ll need for a week on my back. It was hard. My body hurt at the end of day one. My ankles swole up like balloons and screamed at me to stop with nearly every step.
It was great.
My original plan, pre-covid, was a week long silent retreat at the Zen center; also a beautiful struggle every time I do it. I finally accepted the fact that the Zen center was not going to open up for sesshin this year and I desperately needed a media free week in silence, but why choose pain?
I’ll give you 4 reasons:
WE KNOW THINGS BY THEIR OPPOSITES
My Uncle once asked me, “If given the option to spare your children from ever experiencing pain, would you choose this for them?”
I answered with an immediate “No” replying, “how could they ever know joy if they didn’t know pain?” This points towards one of the reasons I like to do hard things. In the picture above I am joyously rinsing my skin in a river. I don’t usually get excited about rivers. After a mere 48 hours without a shower, without washing my hands, after sleeping outside in my own filth, covered in sweat with my muscles aching, the joy of being refreshed and clean is almost overwhelming. Jumping into that river was bliss. The cold water of the river reminded me just how comfortable my life at home is every single day. I take hot showers for granted. I take sinks for granted. I take my bed for granted.
In the image above I am preparing to spend the day hiking in the rain. I take the roof over my head for granted. I take hot meals for granted. I take the safety of sleeping without bears and coyotes circling my tent (yup, happened two nights in a row) for granted. Most of all, I take the company of others for granted.
I practice GRATITUDE daily, but there is plenty of privilege that I overlook. Doing hard things shines a light on just how much I have going for me every day. Carrying everything you need to live on your back for a week and hiking in the woods has beautiful elements as well, but mostly it was a challenge. It is simple and hard and exponentially less comfortable than life indoors. You don’t get to wash your hands after going to the bathroom. You don’t get to adjust the temperature on the thermostat. You are not safe from poison ivy (I got it) bugs (bit me), rodents (attacked my food), coyotes (surrounded me) or bears. Yes, I enjoy roughing it, but mostly I appreciate the way it reminds me just how little I need to survive and how much extra I have in my life to be grateful for.
TO KNOW YOUR LIMITS
Most of us leave A LOT on the table. At the end of the day, how often do you feel that you gave all you could possibly have given? When you do feel this way, isn’t going to bed the best? If you rarely feel this way, how much regret do you imagine you will have at the end of your life? Have you read that Top 5 Regrets of the Dying list? It’s not failure that stings, it is the things we never tried that haunt us at the end. Dreams unfulfilled become nightmares. Knowing you have more to give is one of the most exquisite pains that emerges at the higher stages of personal development. This is what self-actualization is all about.
If you don’t test your limits then you don’t know what you are capable of. If you don’t know what you are capable of then I guarantee you that you are selling yourself short on a near daily basis. Most of us don’t spend enough time outside of our comfort zones to really know how strong we are and how resourceful we might be under pressure. I like to do things specifically because I don’t know how to do them. It may seem completely unrelated to the rest of your life to do something hard like an endurance challenge, but the confidence you build in yourself translates into all realms.
TO PUSH YOUR LIMITS
I don’t just seek my limits just to find out where they are. I seek limits because I know that when I touch them….they move. It is one thing to find a limit, it is another to accept it. I believe that every boundary I see in my life is negotiable.
What happens if you conceptualize every skill to be more like a muscle than a bone? Muscles grow strong when you stress them and limber when you stretch them. They are anti–fragile. You can lose bone, but as an adult, what you see is essentially the most you will ever get. Bones are ‘use it or lose it’, but muscles adapt to the challenge they face.
Many people see skills as bones. They seek to discover where they have “natural talent” and avoid the places where they don’t. This is the definition of a fixed mindset. Well guess what? The research is in. There is no such thing as natural talent. We have natural curiosities. No one can explain why we like what we like. Some feel drawn to art and others to engineering. But if we can sustain effort, especially if we engage deliberate practice, in any area, improvement is inevitable.
The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset. Take whatever talent you have now, multiply it by the effort you are willing to put in and this gives you the skill you end up with. Mastery is asymptotic. There is always more to learn.
This is also true for your self confidence. Think of it like stretching. Right now you have a range of motion that feels accessible. Within this range you are comfortable. If you go too far too fast then you can easily pull a muscle. You have to be careful when you push. Blow past your limit and panic sets in. Anxiety is real. But if you can find your edge, lean into it, take deep belly breaths, and hang out there, your edge begins to expand. If you can’t touch your toes it’s because you don’t try (and fail) often enough. If you are afraid to speak publicly it’s because you don’t try often enough. When you play with your limits they change.
TO BUILD GRIT
I suspect that nothing correlates with success in life more than grit. Too much stress can break you, but too little leaves us weak and full of self doubt. I have coached the adult children of billionaires on multiple occasions. We all know what they have going for them, I’m not asking you to pity them, but they are illuminating when it comes to illustrating one simple point. Being coddled makes us fragile.
When we have things done for us, we tend to doubt whether or not we could do them for ourselves. If you never have to cook, clean, study without a tutor, pay for a meal, or rely on yourself to overcome scary and challenging situations, then you tend to assume your limits are far smaller than what they really are. Don’t get me wrong, each of these people was brilliant and full of amazing potential. Most of them just have a hard time believing it. If you are protected from experiencing discomfort you tend to assume that little things will break you. They won’t, but thinking about it won’t help. You must be tested.
Nowadays many of us are coddled by our parents. In a culture where everybody gets a participation medal, where rights of passage barely exist, it can be hard to know what would happen if you were truly in danger and had no one to rely on but yourself. This doesn’t mean be reckless. I take measured risks. I’m no pioneer. I don’t consider myself to be all that brave. I felt relatively safe on the AT because I know that so many other people have been there before. My growth mindset tells me that if others have done something then, if I am willing to struggle, so can I. My belief in the power of grit makes me smile when I get stuck, keep moving when I have doubt, and seek out new challenges when I feel stagnant.
Grit works like a muscle as well. I love sitting on the beach with a book for a while, but I love adventure a lot more. I want a life that is meaningful more than I want a life that is comfortable. I want to experience diversity more than I want certainty. And when it comes to my life having the impact that I dream it can have I know that I am going to have to be WAY outside of my comfort zone to get there.