This final installment of the series “How to Enjoy Challenges” examines how a challenge can bring the best in a person — or the worst. By diligently removing threats you associate with challenges, anyone can become a brave soul who rises to the occasion and pulls out the best in him/herself.
A challenge can bring out polarized reactions from people.
Most everyone I know cracks under stress. By that, I mean that people revert to the most immature coping mechanism in their arsenal. It’s as if the stress reduces them to a mere child. Some people say nasty things. Others cower in a corner. Some turn violent.
Who I Become Under Stress
For me, I have a number of built-in reactions to stress.
Verbally, I tend to become silent. It feels too vulnerable to speak and express my stress, so I hold it in and let it fester. Another impulse I have is to try to make myself blameless, by either wiping my tracks or coming up with rational-sounding justifications of why I am having a problem. I revert often to lose-win deals so others are less likely to get upset with me.
The problem is that this kind of fear is really hard to hide. I’m sure you’ve seen a child who makes up silly reasons for doing naughty things. You can see right through such a child — and if you are mean-spirited, you’ll know exactly what to say or do to push the child exactly where s/he is afraid, and manipulate him/her.
Regressing under Threat
It appears that being threatened reduces us to a point in life when we first formed the defense mechanism to deal with such a stress. Perhaps you got bullied as a child — or perhaps you were punished severely for an innocent mistake. Whatever the incident, all of us acquire some kind of trauma in the process of growing up, and most of us carry defense mechanisms that we employ to prevent that painful event to happen again. Except, these defensive tactics tend to be entirely fear-driven and immature, and often the effect is that it invites exactly the kind of threat you’re trying to prevent. It’s just like a child who lies to cover up a mistake. You have to keep on lying to cover up the lies you made up, and you drive yourself deeper into a hole.
Why would some of us become the very worst of ourselves when challenged, while others seem to do just the opposite — pull out the best in themselves?
The difference lies in how one perceives the challenge: whether it threatens them or not.
James Bond Remains Cool
I’m not a 007 fanatic or anything, but one of the things I’ve always liked about the James Bond character is that he seems to remain perfectly cool and collected in the most dire situations. He doesn’t even lose his wit and humor. Or in a more realistic example, I know people who are EMT (emergency medical technician — in US, they are the ones that arrive in an ambulance in a medical emergency) who are trained to function at their best under circumstances where most of us would be terrified and reduced to tears.
The reason James Bond and EMTs can function in gravely challenging situations is because they don’t feel personally threatened by the situation.
Notice I said they don’t feel, not that they aren’t.
The difference lies squarely on the perception of the threatened. Sure, people are trying to kill James Bond. Or as an EMT, if you screw up in a medical emergency there can be dire consequences. These people have all the reasons in their world to feel threatened. Except they don’t.
And because they don’t feel threatened, there’s no need to revert to childish defense mechanisms. They can remain level-headed and rational, and deal with the situation in the most mature manner.
It’s the perception of threat that makes us crack in challenging situations, not the challenges themselves.
Every Challenge Is an Opportunity
Throughout this series we’ve been discussing how to remove the element of threat from challenges/problems facing you. When you do stop associating the two elements, then there will be no more need to revert to coping mechanisms when facing challenges. You’ll be able to remain calm and grounded, and call up necessary resources to overcome the obstacles. In the process, you’ll gain fresh insights, acquire new skills, and boost your confidence. Problem-solving becomes fun, just as a good board game is fun when it’s not too easy. Worthy problems start motivating you. The more you build the history of rising to the occasions, the more you welcome such challenges, even to the point of craving them. A positive cycle of growth ensues, and your childish coping mechanisms get left out in the dust, moldy and rusty from unuse.
A lot of people hate math. It is said that girls/women tend to hate it more often. Yet, my 5-year old daughter is doing 2-digit additions for fun, and she figured out multiplications without being taught. My wife loves to pass time doing logic puzzles — and she welcomes difficult ones. Ones too easy are boring. Obviously, they never learned to associate math with the frustration of not being able to understand or the threat of being embarrassed.
Rise to the Occasion
Disassociating threat from challenges frees you up to rise to the occasion, to pull out the best in you to meet the challenge. And that reaction forms a new habit, and you grow to become able to meet bigger challenges. This is how greatness develops. A person’s greatness can be measured by the scope of the challenges they can face and overcome.
This potential is available to all of us, not just select few. Work to separate threats from problems, because challenges are opportunities. You have the power to make them so. And when you acquire the ability to enjoy challenges, then little will rob the joy out of living. Life is filled with worthy problems to solve. You’ll gleefully go about your days, immersing yourself into bigger and biggest challenges you can find, enjoying every minute of pouring everything you have into solving them.
If you learn to enjoy challenges, then you’ll enjoy life. I guarantee it.
Hi Ari – That’s so true how we perceive the challenge. When we take our feelings out of the equation we are more apt to enjoy the journey and learn from it.
I love your words, “A person’s greatness can be measured by the scope of the challenges they can face and overcome.” That is spot on.
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Thanks! I’m really learning that while feelings are greater indicators, they are not always the thing to base your decisions on.
Great post. I had an experience with the EMT’s just a few days ago. I was in an accident where I broke my ankle, and was in a lot of pain. The EMT’s and Firemen remain SUPER calm which tends to ease up the scenario.
AJ Kumar´s last blog post..Courage. Do You Have it or Do You Want it?
I’m sorry to hear about your ankle, but sounds like you were in good hands.
You are so right, Ari.
Great people almost always take problems and difficulties as challenges. Yes, this is the mark of geniuses…
We can think, for example, of Thomas Alva Edison. Despite the many failures he had previous to his wonderful discoveries, he never lost his faith on his objectives, he took failures as lessons and opportunities. And exactly the same can be said of other geniuses, like Columbus; he had a great FAITH, despite all was against him. Yes, geniuses take in crucial moments apparent impossibilities and great problems as challenges. FAITH, and PERSISTENCE, are traits of great people.
Great article, Ari, and great work.
My best wishes,
Hey, it’s good to see you here! Thanks for naming a couple of amazing examples. I can’t even imagine what Columbus must have felt like, going on a journey to the utter unknown.
Personally I always seem to strive better under pressure or panic. I don’t really understand why so many people use up a time of crisis as the perfect time to complain and point the finger.
@AJ Hope you are doing better now.
I too had an accident, got rear ended and it was so funny I jumped out of the car and called 911 to find out what I need to do. I remained quite calm and almost wanted to beat the guy for not knowing how to drive, lol.
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Welcome to OBV! Yes, some people are naturally more inclined to keep it together in crisis situations. But it’s a skill one can develop, too. I hope things turned out OK with your accident.
HA! Loved this “Work to separate threats from problems”. I am software security and performance engineer and “threats” are my bread. Many times in software folks mix threats and vulnerabilities (problems).
But the best is this: “because challenges are opportunities”
Thomas A. Edison would say “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
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Thanks, and welcome to OBV! Yes, I can see where it’s easy to mistake threats with vulnerabilities. The former is urgent, while the latter — it depends on how vulnerable it is, doesn’t it? But if you always considered the latter to be former, then everything would be urgent and “fix it now.” Doesn’t seem like a great situation to be truly productive.