Challenge And Happiness

Being a parent makes me think about the lessons I want my kids to learn and the character traits that I hope they develop. One of my greatest hopes is that they will have the ability and desire to take on challenges and allow themselves to be vulnerable to failure. No doubt this is easier for some people than others and is somewhat ingrained in our personalities, but I believe that anyone can learn it and that everyone can benefit from it. The experience of completing something really difficult and scary is a primary builder of self-worth, and allows one to develop the essential belief that “I can do hard things.” It takes practice.

Once we can establish a pattern of attempting challenges, experiencing setbacks and failures along the way but ultimately being successful, the belief that “anything is possible” and “I can do that” is the logical progression. It is not long before the prospect of challenge and vulnerability is exciting, knowing the potential reward (pleasure) that lies on the other side.

One year my son decided for the first time to play a particularly challenging piece at his recital from memory. In the middle, he forgot where he was and stopped for what seemed like an eternity. My heart sank as I anticipated his shame and embarrassment. I knew he wanted to get up and run away, but he composed himself and started back up again from the beginning. The pride he felt afterward was enormous and the lesson he learned added an important piece to his growing character. Now he loves playing at recitals. He knows he might make mistakes but also knows that he can handle it, and he anticipates the fantastic feeling that comes after doing a great job at something scary and difficult.

Believe it or not, I am still terrified every time I do a triathlon. But the feeling of literally jumping into your fears (with triathlons, the swim is first) and finding that you can overcome them is just too good to pass up, so I keep signing up to get my fix. The IronMan Triathlon was the ultimate symbol of this whole theory. Why on earth did I ever think I could do an Ironman? I questioned this occasionally, right up until I was standing at the edge of the water. What it came down to was faith, a faith in myself that came from getting through lots of hard things before. I was pretty sure, without much evidence, that I could face anything the race threw at me.

The IronMan really is just an exaggerated and condensed metaphor for life. It teaches that things that seem on their face to be impossible may really be just a series of quite doable events strung together. One simply masters one small problem at a time without being distracted by the enormity of the whole. There are plenty of small “failures” in an IronMan. At the start of the race, you know there will be problems. You might lose your goggles, have a flat tire, fall off your bike, have diarrhea, or get injured on the run. As each problem occurs you calmly assess it, regroup and adjust your tactics then move on without looking back. The fact that there will be inevitable “failures” doesn’t stop you from jumping in.

It is human nature to want to run away when things are hard and there is a significant chance that we will fail, or embarrass ourselves. Whether it is sticking to a weight loss program, taking on a new responsibility at work, or showing up for the first time at a dance class, opportunities to develop our courage are everywhere. While I don’t recommend trying things that truly endanger your health or finances, the one thing that I hope to inspire in my kids and my patients is the courage to take risks. Courage and calculated risk-taking should be a way of life, and requires practice.

I am certain that the root of any of the success in my life is my affinity for a challenge and the deep-seated faith that either I will succeed or will learn something valuable by trying. We have all heard the saying “the road to success is paved with failure,” and this has certainly been the case for me. I just never defined myself by the failures. Another great saying that sums this idea up is “Think you can or think you can’t; either way, you’re right.”