How I am learning to embrace challenges, not begrudge them.

The beginning

17 years old, on the first day of my final year at high school, I was not excited. Throughout my life up to that point, I had not been a motivated person. I had done enough work to get by with average grades, but I had never put my heart into my studies. Whether that was the fault of uninspiring teachers, or my own laziness, I don’t know. And now, as I entered the final year, I was dreading my A-levels. I was predicted two B’s and a C: decidedly average grades. And I was not looking forward to all the work I was going to have to do to get even these.

I set off to walk to the dinner hall with a friend. On the way, we stopped by at the computer department. On the wall I noticed some posters that the computer teacher had put up. One of them said this:

The tougher the job, the greater the challenge, let’s look at tough jobs as challenges not problems. Let’s try for success.

And with volition on my part, something deep in my soul ignited. I saw that I had a choice about how I approached the difficult year that lay ahead of me. Another of the posters had a picture of a mountain on it, and in my imagination suddenly the hard year of studying and the mountain to climb were equated, and something like the following thought rolled out:

“Why don’t I treat this upcoming year of hard work as a challenge, not a problem? Why don’t I approach it in the same spirit in which I would climb a mountain [not that I was a mountain climber at the time, but I always enjoyed the small adventures I had been on as a child]. Climbing a mountain is something which is hard, yes, but when approached with gusto and enthusiasm and with a willingness to accept a bit of pain on the way, it is something which is also fun, interesting, and rewarding.”

From that day forth, not really knowing what I was doing as I had never tried my hardest at anything before, I had a new attitude, and I flung myself into my studies. And after a couple of months, not only did my grades start to markedly improve, to my surprise, I started to enjoy my work. I ended the year with AAB (not the AAA I had hoped for, but still, a huge step in the right direction after the 17 previous years of mediocrity and laziness).

An important lesson for a young man

It was an important lesson: we have a choice about how we approach difficulties and obstacles in life. When we have a literal mountain to climb we can choose to climb it resentfully, reluctantly, fearfully, half-heartedly, lazily, thoughtlessly, joylessly, unenthusiastically, lethargically, unintentionally and with much dread and fretting. If we take this approach, we will probably still get over the mountain in the end and continue on our way but, to put it mildly, we will not enjoy the experience, and we will not gain much from it.

On the other hand, we can choose to embrace the challenge, and to climb the mountain with energy, enthusiasm, joy, exuberance, focus, intentionality, mindfulness, excitement, determination, perseverance, and courage. With a smile shining through our gritted teeth.

There advantages of the latter approach are so obvious that they barely need stating:

  • We will enjoy getting through the difficulty more
  • We will probably progress faster, with more efficiency and energy, and be better at handling other smaller problems that crop up along the way
  • Other people will enjoy being around us more

Backed by academic research

Shawn Achor notes how one of the three key determinants of our career success is “our ability to see stress as a challenge not a threat”. Carol Dweck has demonstrated how if we have a “growth mindset” about how challenges are good thing because they help us to develop (as opposed to a “fixed mindset” which sees the danger of failure as a threat), it will make a huge difference in our long term prospects in life.  And can anyone think of a possible advantage that arises from resenting challenge, rather than embracing it?

Three practical tips for learning to embrace challenge, rather than begrudge it

I am not always good at embracing challenge, but I aspire to get better and better at it, and these are three things which I’ve found to help.

1. First to remember that to a large extent, whether we embrace or begrudge challenges is a choice that is in our hands. We can choose. It is up to me. In a different context, having been through such things that most of us cannot even imagine, the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Now of course, Frankl was not talking about embracing challenge in the same way, but he did build a very solid case for the idea that even when going through hell on earth, he had freedom to choose his attitude, to find meaning in his circumstances, and it was this, more than anything, which was to determine whether he would survive the concentration camps or not.

2. Although it might not seem natural at first, we learn to embrace challenge through practice. The more we do it, the better we get at it. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” And in another place he wrote “We become just by performing just action, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave action.” So we become good at embracing challenges, by embracing challenges. And we don’t just have to practise in the work context. It is good to find a hobby, whether it be sport, adventure, cooking, art, writing, which we deeply enjoy and desire to get better at (because we enjoy it, not to fulfill some other ambition) and to practise embracing greater and greater challenges in this field, which will in turn help us to embrace challenges in other spheres of our lives (such as our work).

3. This links into my third idea. In my own experience, it is incredibly helpful when I use my imagination to associate the problem that I think I will not enjoy (a hard report to write, a difficult sales pitch to make, a relational impasse, a dull application), with a challenge which I do enjoy. This is what I did with my A-levels, and I can still do this – thinking of a high mountain pass to cycle over, a formidable desert to walk across, a thick jungle to trudge my way through – and then linking this to the difficult task ahead of me. Thinking in these terms seems to magically release a well of energy and motivation and focus into my life which helps me do much better at the task, and to enjoy it more. Of course, not everyone likes adventure, so they can imagine a different challenge they enjoy. Someone who likes cooking could imagine a difficult recipe; a sportsperson an exciting tournament they are in; a movie buff, writing that review for a prestigious paper.  Calling these challenges to mind as we face our less appealing challenges, will help enormously.

Three final thoughts

1.    I realise that on my real adventures of riding and walking across tundra, desert, jungle and war zone, whilst I have often approached them with great determination, I have not always embraced them with enthusiasm. In fact, I have often gone into them with dread and trembling. But in future, I want to increasingly add to that determination, more and more joyful enthusiasm. I want to recall when I have had a good, joyful attitude of adventure, for example, when I canoed down the River Thames, or I cycled across China for the first time, or walked across the Judean desert – and tap into that energy.

2.    Another reflection on past adventures, has made me realise that “embracing challenge” was only part of what helped me through. In total, there were actually 8 different key “Attitudes of Adventure” that I practised intuitively, and then realised retrospectively, which were:

1)   Embrace challenge

2)   Have clear goals (long, medium and short term)

3)   Practising self-care

4)   Remember I cannot make it on my own

5)   Persevere

6)   Be a problem solver

7)   Take calculated risks

8)   Plan wisely (hope for the best, plan for the worst)

I will be blogging about these in the coming weeks.

3.    As I write, I am actually about to set off on a new expedition, which will, I expect, be more challenging than anything I have ever done. I can’t explain more now, except that I will be attempting to pioneer a new way of crossing one of the most hostile environments on earth – and no, it is not one of the Poles. I am very tempted to dread the experience. Instead, I want to embrace every day of it as a challenge, with a smile on my cracked lips.