Most of us spend a lot of effort trying to avoid discomfort and adversity. We like the world to be at least somewhat predictable and comfortable. I’d like to suggest that all of us should be spending more of our time seeking challenges. Here’s why:
Just as physical muscles are built through challenge and response, we build our resilience muscles by encountering difficult or uncomfortable situations and working through them. The more we avoid discomfort, the less practice we have in dealing with it. However, if we actively seek challenges, and choose the ones we take on, we are able to build our strength to deal with unexpected problems and difficulties.
Many parents have already taken this lesson to heart. Parents who overprotect their children do not help them prepare for real life. As hard as it may be to see a child failing at something, experiencing an injury, or feeling sad or lonely, these experiences provide opportunities for the child to learn how to deal with disappointment, pain, and other uncomfortable emotions.
There are limits, of course. Parents need to make sure that children don’t encounter life-threatening dangers, and all of us need to make sure that we don’t get into situations that are well beyond our capabilities to handle. However, within those boundaries there are many opportunities to learn and grow.
This is where the concept of a “resilience gym” comes in. A resilience gym is an arena you enter with the knowledge that it will contain unexpected and/or difficult situations, and that you use as a place to build your challenge-readiness. As an example, one of my own resilience gyms is sailboat racing. I crew on a sailboat for races on a nearby lake. The challenges I encounter are different every time: learning how to drive the boat and trim the sails, dealing with unexpected changes in weather, moving quickly to avoid collisions, working with new crew members who have not “learned the ropes” yet, and a wide range of other physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual demands.
In my book Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World, I listed these characteristics of a good resilience gym:
You choose it with no pressure from anyone else
It has the potential to provide outcomes you value—enjoyment, meaning, stimulation, etc.
It has elements that are unknown or unpredictable
It provides periodic opportunities for rest and reflection
It’s not easy to retreat from but, if needed, will temporarily allow you to step away from the challenge into a place that feels safer
Based on my own experiences since writing the book, I would also emphasize the importance of having others in the gym with you who are supportive, willing to challenge you, and pursuing their own development path. You may also find that it’s helpful to have a coach/trainer who helps you with growth and development as you spend time in the gym…more about that in a future article.
Here are some ideas for finding a resilience gym:
Take on a new sport or other physical activity. You will probably experience aches, pains, the feeling of being awkward, and perhaps even some injuries.
Take a class in a new and somewhat difficult subject—a foreign language, advanced art or mathematics, or anything else that will require you to work hard and that presents the possibility of failure.
Travel to a new place. Journeys—especially those to other countries—usually bring with them challenges related to navigation, transportation, and communication.
Make a deep commitment to another person. Whether it’s a marriage or other long-term relationship, a business partnership, or some other form of bond, committed relationships are a wonderful place to encounter and grow from challenges.
The benefits of regularly visiting a resilience gym may take a while to show up, but over time, you will notice that you are more able to take small challenges in stride, and that you have built “muscles” that help you work through larger challenges.