Monday, August 23, 2010

rising to the challenge

(This is a copy of an article that a friend requested for the secretarial newsletter at her firm. If it sounds kinda formal and talks about work a lot, that's why.)

There is a huge opportunity to grow through a challenge – just ask first-year marathon runners. People who never thought they could run 0.2 miles (let alone 26.2) will tell you that by overcoming the challenge they set for themselves to simply finish the race, they feel more confident in their abilities to do a wide variety of other things. The same is true for athletes, artist, businesspeople, and anyone who puts him- or herself up to a challenge.

Facing a challenge will stretch you and help you find reserves inside of you that you didn’t know you had. And the challenge doesn’t have to be as epic as a marathon; it can simply be pushing yourself to stop eating candy in the late afternoon or to strike up a conversation with that good looking guy in your conversational French class.

Sometimes challenges come at us when we least expect them, and we can’t even see that they’re happening. We overlook opportunities to grow because we see them as “not my job” or “never going to happen.” Missing them is easy – but so is grabbing them before they pass. Catch yourself saying these three things, “I can’t,” “I should,” or “it’s hard,” and there’s a good chance you’re facing a challenge.

I can’t
There is very little in this world that can’t be done given infinite resources, so there isn’t anything, in fact, that you can’t do. I can’t climb Mt. Everest, you say. Well, that’s not actually true. If you gave up your normal life, moved to Tibet, paid a boatload of money, and trained for the next several years, you could climb Mt. Everest. So it’s not the case that you can’t climb Mt. Everest, it’s that you are choosing not to give up your normal life, move to Tibet, pay a boatload of money and train for the next several years. (And I can’t say I blame you for that decision.)

Or rather, let’s say an attorney gives you a document as you’re walking out the door to lunch with an old friend. “I need a million copies of this document before you go,” she says, looking panicked and frazzled. You call your friend. “I can’t go to lunch today, I have to make a million copies.” Now, is it actually true that you can’t go to lunch? Are you physically incapable of leaving? No, of course not. You are simply choosing to stay to make the million copies – maybe because this attorney brought you breakfast this morning, or because she’s new here and has been under a lot of pressure, too, or simply because it’s your job. Whatever the reason, the truth is that you are choosing to skip lunch, so why not explain your behavior in terms of what you’re choosing instead of what you’re giving up? Using “I can’t” in your vocabulary turns you into a victim. Try replacing it with “I choose not to” and see what changes.

(Already, saying “I choose not to climb Mt. Everest” sounds pretty good.)

I should
Just thinking about the things one should do is exhausting. There’s a dragging sense of obligation, leaving no room for fun around eating more vegetables, going to the gym, or cleaning your bathtub. But when you think of the things you want to do, the excitement comes back – feeling more fit and not being grossed out when you shower are more worth the effort it will take to make them happen.

When you’re being challenged, it’s easy to fall back into the habit of “shoulding.” This means thinking in terms of obligations and expectations, and not in terms of opportunities and fun. Let’s say your current challenge is getting to work on time. “I really should get up earlier,” you say to a supervisor. However, if that supervisor’s smart, he won’t expect to see you follow through with that until you start talking about what you want to do. “I want to get up earlier so I can read the paper and still get to work on time” is much more likely to yield results.

It’s hard
This is the biggest and easiest trap to fall into when you’re facing a challenge. Whatever it is – running a marathon or eating less candy – of course it’s hard! If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a challenge. However, using that particular phrase, “it’s hard,” drains the situation of any motivation. It’s the king of cop outs.

What if, instead, you faced a difficult situation by saying “it’s a challenge”? The change in wording instantly makes the situation seem more doable – all kinds of people rise to challenges every day. Facing a challenge with the intention of growing increases your motivation to actually accomplish the task.

Let’s look again at the million copies scenario. Sure, it would be hard to make a million copies before lunch, but if you see it as a challenge, you cast it in a different light. There are more options, more choices, and you’ll see more results.

Winston Churchill, the master at facing enormous challenges, once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Since you get to choose how you see a situation, would you rather be a pessimist or an optimist?

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