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When in Doubt, Choose Challenge

Issue 14

I started writing this on March 16 after taking a brief dip in the ocean.

While the outdoor temperature was mild—in the mid-40s—the water was 38 degrees.

I wasn’t really in the mood for jumping into the frigid water, which is exactly why I did it.

I’m glad I did it, even though the icy water stung my skin and my feet hurt almost immediately.

I’m glad I did it because “choosing challenge” is one of the best ways to become more resilient.

Choosing challenge— i.e. intentionally stepping outside our comfort zone rather than doing what’s easy or anxiety-free—is like strength and conditioning training for the mind and spirit.

It makes us psychologically stronger and more durable, which enables us to handle life’s challenges more easily.

It’s like the training that elite athletes and Navy SEALS engage in. They push themselves hard in training, knowing that this increases their ability to rise to the challenge their sport or battle brings to them.

So, if you want to become braver and more resilient, practice “choosing challenge.”

This could mean doing something that is physically uncomfortable, having a conversation you’ve been avoiding, or putting yourself in new situations where you feel out of your element and insecure.

Here’s another example you might relate to, especially if you’re an introvert or have social anxiety.

I was doing a keynote at a conference in Maine several years ago and had decided to have a quiet dinner by myself the evening before I was to give my presentation.

I wanted to review one more time what I wanted to say and enjoy the quietude of a solo dinner.

A few hours prior to my heading out for dinner, a friend who owned a publication found me in the conference expo hall and invited me to go to this great restaurant with some other people she was taking out to dinner.

She said the restaurant was one of a kind. It didn’t have a phone, they didn’t take reservations, and they didn’t have a menu. The chef, a master from New York City , would whip up something amazing and you got to experience it.

While the food sounded enticing, the idea of sitting at a large table of strangers did not.

I told her I would think about it.

I went back and forth in my mind between the thought of just wanting to have my quiet dinner and not putting myself in the awkward situation of having to make small talk with strangers (something I despise) and reminding myself that the only way I would become more comfortable in these situations is to step outside my comfort zone and get more experience doing it.

A couple of hours of this back and forth went by and I still hadn’t made up my mind.

I bumped into my friend again and she let me know that we would all be leaving from the hotel in a courtesy van.

You know those scenes in movies where the person does that slow motion “Noooooooo!!!!” with their hands out in front of them?

That was my Inside Voice after she told me about the van.

If you’re an introvert or have social anxiety or just don’t like small talk and chit chat, you know what I was thinking: If I go in the courtesy van, I’ll be trapped.

I won’t be able to bail out early if I’ve had enough.

Because I found the whole idea so challenging, so not what I would normally choose to do, that’s what I decided to do.

And…it was one of the most fun evenings I’ve ever had at a conference.

Not only was the food great, but I had a great time with the people I met.

Now, if it had NOT been a fun time, I would have rewarded myself later for having stepped outside my comfort zone, so I would associate doing so with positive emotions.

How You Can Apply This

• Make sure you’re onboard with the important truth that stepping outside your comfort zone is a MUST for personal growth and developing resilience.

• Use slogans like “discomfort is my friend” to remind yourself that by definition you will not feel comfortable stepping outside your comfort zone, and stepping outside your comfort zone is the only way to grow. So…if you feel anxious or scared doing something new (that’s healthy), it means you are growing.

• Notice choice points where you can do the easy thing or the hard thing and remind yourself “I can do hard.”

• Start small. Just as William James admonished over a hundred years ago, practice with the little, seemingly inconsequential things first.

• Celebrate your “small wins” when you choose challenge. If it doesn’t go well, reward yourself for taking the leap, so your brain associates positive emotions with choosing challenge.

• If jumping into a cold ocean seems a bit much, try a few seconds of a cold shower. Not only does it get you out of your comfort zone, it’s one of the best ways to strengthen your nervous system…aka build resilience (google “hacks vagus nerve” and read about this).

David Lee
David Lee
David Lee is a career coach with Heart at Work Associates and a workplace relationship consultant. He is the author of the “Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker: The Courageous Conversations at Work Series.”
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