I have a confession to make. I’m really annoyed by all the websites and people demanding that as a function of being the best possible version of yourself, you should be eating special diets, running triathlons, and hitchhiking through third world countries.
It’s not that any of these things are bad, per se. It’s just that they’re unimaginative and counter-intuitively limiting. “Unimaginative” because you can’t chuck a rock online without hitting someone who’s training for a marathon or living in southeast Asia. “Limiting” because there is so much more challenging stuff to do.
I imagine I’ll get flak from certain quarters for this, but the examples I mentioned above seem to have one thing in common: they let you prove to yourself that you are tough and courageous.
The Hero’s Journey
“Adventure” seems to be the most popular answer. Adventures are awesome. I love adventures. But when you’re not half-terrified through all your adventures, and you don’t realize it’s because you’re assured of your own bravery, you might start to think there’s something missing. And there is.
You know who goes on adventures every day? CJ and Tammy Renzi. I love those two. Every day, they go out the door for a long walk — and then do you know what they do? They pay attention.
They watch the squirrels wage turf wars and they take note of the people they encounter, making up funny backstories for them and creating their own mythology. You should be so lucky as to have half the adventures these two have.
You don’t have to go to Phnom Phen to have adventures. You just have to be open to the possibility of adventures wherever you are.
Returning To A New Life
But adventuring can get boring after a time, if you’re not challenging yourself. You can challenge yourself more, I suppose. You see this when people run a 5k, then a half-marathon, then a marathon, then an ultramarathon. It’s like they really need to see what the limits of their physical bodies are.
And that’s so funny to me, because the limits of your body aren’t really the limits of your physical flesh; they’re the limits of your mind. Your brain puts limits on your body in order to keep you from wrecking it unless it’s really necessary, like the engine brake that kicks in when you top 180km/hr (not that I would know anything about that). That’s why you hear things like grandmothers lifting cars off of children. It was necessary, so they gave it everything they had.
Training yourself to keep running through “the wall” is only one way of breaking through self-imposed beliefs. It’s popular because it works, but having nearly killed myself on a couple of different occasions because I didn’t know when to quit makes me leery of recommending it as a tool.
Speaking of grandmothers, having people who depend on you is another great tool for breaking through the wall. Every time someone tells me about working two or three jobs and sleeping only four hours a night during the first decade of their kids’ life in order to make a better future for them, I am in awe. Sure, I’ve worked hard and half-killed myself to do it, but I was paid extremely well to do so. This person sacrificed so much, not for themselves, but for others.
This kind of sacrifice is not as lauded, at least in the circles I run in.
I am troubled by this.
I guess part of the problem is that people often use the people who depend on them as an excuse not to take a personal risk. They tell themselves that the security or stability of those other people is more important than anything they themselves might want to do. This video that Joel Zaslofsky recommended to me is a great example of how to manage risk even though people depend on you.
I also see people who suffer from physical constraints prevent them from using their body as a tool to push their limits. Someone who suffers from debilitating illness or some form of disability should not feel like they are not badass enough to seize life with both hands. By dint of not giving up these people have more than proved their toughness cred. Whether they can do crossfit or not, they have already shown that they are tough and brave.
I wrote another long post on just that topic on Cordelia Calls It Quits. There are too many people who think that that struggle and that sacrifice is embarrassing or a personal failing or somehow cheating on their part. In fact, the struggle is all too often a form of compensatory learning. They’re learning how deep their reservoirs of personal strength are, how to pick themselves up and carry on, and how to deal with the monsters in their heads. And they didn’t even have to run 42 miles to do it.
Transformation Isn’t Mandatory, However. You Can Wind Up Right Where You Started Again.
Alexander Heyne at Milk the Pigeon just wrote on this topic from a slightly different perspective. He warned “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Alexander has been there and done that; he cleared the “tough and brave” bar quite young. He’s done the physical training, lived in China for a year or two, he’s crossed dozens of items off his bucket list. He’s 25. And now he wants to know, did that really make my life richer?
Or would I have been just as happy and fulfilled hanging out with friends, reading good books and sipping a latte in a cafe on a lazy afternoon?
We can’t know empirically because Alexander will never find out what he would have been like had he never gone to China. But now that he’s done both and he can judiciously say that adventure is maybe even a little bit inferior to doing basically nothing, you can use that to check your own thinking.
Me, I think adventure is maybe a little superior to doing basically nothing, but it is inferior to the sort of purposeful puttering where I’m engaging in several of my various projects but without the pressure of a deadline. Sipping lattes in a cafe has to stay a once-in-a-blue-moon pleasure for it to maintain its magic. And so does adventuring.
But engaged, high-flow productivity in the fussy, highly specialized areas of interest never lose their charm. It’s like asking an artist if she ever gets bored of painting. Of painting, maybe. Of making art? Never.
What Happens When You Reach Enlightenment? Chop Wood, Carry Water
So I guess the biggest problem I have with people trying to prove themselves is that people rarely follow that to its logical conclusion. If anything, when you ask someone what happens after they prove themselves, they say “Well, you never stop learning and growing.”
No, you don’t, but you’re done proving and now you’re just exploring.
This is the example I like to use: Back when professions were considered “crafts,” each craft had its own guild. When you began learning the craft, you were an apprentice for a period of time. Once you’d learned and mastered the basics, you became a journeyman.
An essential part of the journeyman period was for you to take an actual journey and go check out how people in other cities and countries did your craft. You were to use this experience to further develop your expertise, and eventually you would create a piece, a master work, to demonstrate that you had in fact mastered your trade, whether you were a stonemason or a clockmaker. Your fellow master craftspeople would examine your work and if it passed, you were name a master crafter in your own right.
So much has changed.
Certain trades still use the apprentice-journeyman-master template. But the difference is that most never go beyond journeyman. Why? Because to a layperson, there’s no difference between a journeyman’s work and a masters, for most applications. If you want your house wired, you don’t need a master electrician. You just need a tidy, safe, workmanlike job, and a journeyman is more than adequate for that.
But when it comes to your life I submit to you that being a journeyman is not nearly adequate at all. “Workmanlike” is not sufficient.
It is true that mastery is rarely “required.” That’s very utilitarian mindset, though. That’s why we no longer have glorious gothic masterpieces in our cities. We have sterile concrete, steel, and glass monoliths. Boring.
Of course, mastery doesn’t mean you leave the fundamentals behind you. You see this in all sorts of people who are masters of their craft. Yo-yo Ma still does his scales and arpeggios. Picasso always did sketches. George R.R. Martin still edits his work. Practical workmanship and deliberate practice is still necessary, and constant improvement is still pursued.
It just doesn’t manifest the same way.
I’m going to be conceited and quote myself from the comments at Milk the Pigeon, because it was that line that kept me going long enough to wrestle this post out of my brain:
It’s interesting, but once you’ve broken through the mental barriers of what you’re capable of, as a practical matter, boundaries don’t exist– you’re just trying to keep the engines running at the most efficient RPMs. You’re not intentionally going too high or too low, just to see if you can and what will happen.
Because when a master craftsman pushes himself, it doesn’t look like what it looks like when a journeyman pushes himself. Very often, it’s wholly internal. It’s about trying a different perspective. It’s about testing assumptions. It’s about working at things patiently until they take shape. You’re using loads of tedious little skills (you may have heard me call them katas) that you definitely did during your journeyman period but you didn’t realize that their mastery would be so involving, so engaging, and that it would continue to play such a huge part of your ongoing growth.
Once you have proven to yourself that you are not weak, craven, or broken, you break down a wall, a wall that says, I am worthless. Discovering that you are worthy of good things, of a life that fits you perfectly, frees you to pursue them.
When you realize that maybe you are weak, or fearful, or damaged sometimes, but that that doesn’t detract from your intrinsic worth, you break down another wall. This wall says, I am imperfect. Everything is imperfect. This imperfection is manifest perfection, because without imperfection the system would be static.
When you realize that being imperfect doesn’t mean that you can’t choose, moment-by-moment, to be better than you are, you have stumbled on the most engaging challenge of your life.
From that realization stems a thousand little projects. Since you can never have enough willpower or mental acuity to make these “I will be better” decisions every moment of your life, you begin to look at the various ways and means to do that. How can you do more meaningful work? How can you affirm to the people how much you appreciate them? How can you make the most of this tremendous life you’ve been given? What does the best possible version of you look like? What matters? What doesn’t?
I could go on for days like this, it’s so intoxicating. And it changes the entire tenor of your life.
This is what you get to do when you’re done proving you’re tough. And we can’t wait for you to join us.