Prosilience #12: The Challenges We Choose
Using our resilience to make a difference in the world.
We often think of resilience as a response to external events and circumstances. However, the challenges we take on voluntarily are important to understanding the full picture of how resilience helps us thrive.
Voluntary challenges are those we take on because they call to us.
Sometimes we are drawn by the challenge itself: the thrill of mastering something that boosts our adrenaline and tests our fortitude—an extreme sport, a perilous voyage, a difficult course of study, or some other exciting and potentially dangerous activity.
Sometimes we identify an action or path that is personally meaningful and accept the challenges that come with it—tackling a social issue, running for political office, joining the Special Forces, working on the front lines of health care, or something else that feels important to us.
These challenges can be short—going ziplining, making a public speech, or sitting with a sick friend; medium—earning a graduate degree or taking a major trip; or long—choosing a career, entering into a relationship, or making a long-term commitment to a way of life.
As I look around me, I see many challenges that my colleagues, friends, and family have chosen. One of my sisters and her family have raised several puppies for Canine Companions for Independence. Puppies may be cute, but they certainly bring some challenges with them!
Challenges and Energy
As human beings, we have a finite supply of energy—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—that we draw on for all the challenges we are facing at any given time1. This energy fuels our resilience “muscles.” When we run low on energy, we can feel depleted and drained, and find it more difficult to deal with life and its inevitable twists and turns. Sometimes the other challenges in our world use all our available energy and leave little for voluntary ones.
This is where the idea of prosilience comes in—intentionally building challenge-readiness by focusing on the skills and tools that help us address disruption, adversity, and change with less wasted energy. The more efficiently and effectively we can deal with the other challenges, the more energy we have left for the ones we really want to take on.
Another relevant concept here is grit, which is defined as “an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state. I see grit as one part of the resilience picture—the mindsets and skills that help us stay determined and motivated when taking on long-term, voluntary challenges.
The Benefits of Chosen Challenges
Voluntary challenges can change the world. Using our unique talents and gifts to make a difference often involves taking action in the face of obstacles, standing up to speak, and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones. When the challenges that we choose are driven by a clear sense of meaning and purpose, we can focus our energy powerfully and intentionally on pursuing important goals. With the world so full of concerns and issues that need attention, our voluntary energy is essential to creating positive change.
I have found this to be a critically important point for leaders of several non-profit organizations I have worked with—a reason for them to work on building their own resilience so they are better able to fulfill their personal and organizational missions.
Microchallenges as Resilience Practice
While big, voluntary challenges are potential world changers, I also encourage you to take moment and think about the value of voluntary microchallenges. These are the little things we do to stretch ourselves and get beyond our comfort zones for a short period of time. Initiating a tough conversation with someone we care about, pushing harder than usual in an exercise class, reaching out to someone who looks like they need help—opportunities are all around us.
It turns out that we build our resilience through experience—which means that we can’t grow without some level of challenge. Every time you choose to initiate a small challenge, you have entered the “resilience gym.” The muscles you build there will serve you in all aspects of your life.
A number of years ago I took up sailboat racing as a hobby. One of the reasons I keep doing it is that it’s an endless source of microchallenges. Weather, teamwork, physical effort, competition—these all give me opportunities to get uncomfortable and practice my own resilience.
It’s easy to think that challenges we asked for are somehow easier than the ones that are thrust upon us. But it’s not true. Once we’re out there on life’s playing field, we can get every bit as shaken, hurt, scared, sad, and angry in a situation we chose as we might in any other kind of challenge.
However, it’s also true that voluntary challenges are energy investments. Many kinds of challenges only serve to drain us, but pursuing challenges that are meaningful to us, seeing ways we can learn and grow by pushing past self-imposed limitations, and experiencing the joy of making a difference in the world all have the potential to replenish our energy, creating a positive spiral that helps us build greater levels of strength and well-being.
Here are a few questions to think about regarding voluntary challenges:
—What are some challenges you have chosen in your life so far?
—As you look around, what examples can you see of others’ voluntary challenges?
—As you consider your own values and goals, are there additional challenges you would like to pursue?
Writing this newsletter is one of my own chosen challenges. Every time I put an issue together, it pushes me to think about something a little more deeply. I hope you find it thought-provoking and helpful. See you in two weeks!