One of my friends and I have an ongoing argument: Does putting yourself through a grueling challenge make you tougher?
I talked about this a couple weeks ago in the post “On Doing Things (to) Yourself,” but this is a bit more nuanced version.
His whole premise is that, if you have to put yourself through pain and suffering in order to prove yourself, your self-esteem is not high enough that you would ever be satisfied that you are tough “enough.” You will want to be the best, and the fact of the matter is that there will always be somebody who has gone through more than you. And if you’re bull-headed enough, you’ll test yourself to destruction trying to attain the unattainable.
I disagree. Like in most things, motivation is everything. Are there a number of people out there who do things for the reasons he describes? Yeah. For sure. But not everybody is like that.
I have always dived headfirst into adversity because I desperately wanted to know what I was made of. I left academia because I became convinced it would make me soft. I was already so good at politics and bullshitting, I knew I had more of the same to look forward to. But was that all I was capable of? I was scared that it was.
So I went to get my truckers’ license. Not many people know that I failed the test 6 times. It was the most humiliating thing I had ever done. Me, who had never failed anything, ever. At $300 per test, it might have been more rational to quit. But at least it wasn’t that most humiliating failure of all: admitting defeat.
After I finally passed, I set my sights higher. I was going to the oilpatch. Conventional wisdom was that women couldn’t get a job there. The work was too tough. They couldn’t hack it. So of course I was determined to do it.
I got a job (an office number cruncher pointed out that I would work more cheaply than a man. And he was right). It took me another month to get into the field, and only because a man got hurt on a rig and they were desperate. I took over.
The rig really needed two guys. It was moving too fast. But I couldn’t have another guy because it was a liability issue. I knew at that point they were trying to break me. You don’t put a greenhorn on a rig that fast. I worked 21 hour days all that summer.
I quit to go back to school, and I immediately fell ill. Adrenal fatigue. I had run on fumes for so long, there was nothing left in the tank.
Living on that rig, going without sleep, disciplining myself to drink a bottle of water and a granola bar every hour on the hour even though the sleep-deprivation made the thought of food repulsive. Never ever shirking, never whining, winning the respect of the riggers by sheer force of will– that changed me.
Learning from Pain — Or Not
Even though my body ultimately gave up on me, it didn’t fail me when I needed it. It waited til I had the space and time to give out. I finally know I can trust my body when it counts.
Of course, now my body is not nearly so forgiving of ego-stoking stunts like that. Having proven itself once, it’s not going to go through it againunless it’s truly necessary.
I learned a lot from that suffering. But I don’t need suffering to learn. And that’s the essential distinction between what I believe about grueling challenges and what my friend believes. I can learn about myself from that kind of pain. But I don’t have to. I can also learn from love, from vulnerability, from cooperation and from leadership.
Where could you make your learning process a little less painful?