What To Do When You’re Finished Proving You’re Tough

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.

Then what?


Then what?


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.


12 thoughts on “What To Do When You’re Finished Proving You’re Tough”

  1. Pingback: The Inspirational Power of Prosaic Badassity | Cordelia Calls It Quits

  2. OK. It’s time for some bullets:This article just got curated in two spreadsheets. It landed in the “Curated Online Content” one with a “Yes” value in the “Super High Quality or Impactful” column. It also landed in the “Quotes” spreadsheet as you wrote about, “The limits of your body aren’t really the limits of your physical flesh.”Way to use the Renzis as a case study of people that know how to have an adventure every day … right where they are. I couldn’t agree more.You have dissected and examined the “cult of the extreme and adventurous” well. I’ve never tried to prove to myself that I’m a badass in the physical realm. I normally pursue internal feats of strength and I don’t plan to change that for more external displays of “Raaaaarr! Looks at me! I’m amazing!”I hope you get some serious attention for this post – and some negative comments to boot – because it’s controversial in the circles that you and I I run in. It deserves a counter-argument and an ongoing conversation about how we prove our mettle in life.

    Third of all

  3. I really appreciate that you’re coming out and saying these things, Shanna. Someone has to. After all, not everyone’s goal in life is to physically kick life in the pants. There’s no reason 8 million other things can’t also be heroic, admirable, inspiring, worthy of congratulations. I think we get trapped in bubbles far more than we’d like to admit. Everyone is striving for location independence? Cool, I’d better do it too! And so forth. In a lot of ways, it’s like the peer pressure they taught us to avoid in school.

    I’ve never been someone out to prove myself physically. But I’ve also never really considered anything else I do to be on par with the whole “pursue the impossible” mindset. Food for thought, definitely!

  4. I agree it’s become cliché in some small privileged circles that a “remarkable life” entails world travel and grueling physical feats. I think you are also suggesting not everyone has to prove that she’s tough that way. Fari enough. There’s a point to those activities however, whether they be toughing out a difficulties of a relationship or enduring the trials of supporting a family or pushing yourself to the top of Mt Whitney. Testing your limits as a practice gives us chops and discipline so that when our limites are tested as a matter of circumstance, we have the means to endure real trauma and difficult situations.

    I do find the pervasive myth in those small circles that the Adventurer / Athlete / Travelers hold the only route to a “remarkable life.” And maybe in contrast the rest of us are wasting our lives. It’s more of the same hero myth that we all need to be THE MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD. It’s oppressive and unrealistic for most of us.

    I think that’s partly what you are getting at, no?

  5. David Delp There’s definitely a point to those activities. It’s just that as it stands, when people say they’re going to push their limits, what they visualize tends to be quite limited. And that’s a fine place to start, truly. But I think the lack of discussion, maybe even the lack of language, doesn’t draw people into these greater challenges because they don’t realize they’re there. 

    Also, those challenges tend to be quite subtle, because the traveling/adventuring aspect of being “The Most Interesting Man in the World” (great metaphor) is just window dressing on a person who has a very interesting mind, and a very interesting worldview. And developing those doesn’t necessarily require travel or physical challenges.

  6. erinkurup The initial issue I had with things like the Impossible League was actually that I didn’t agree that these things were impossible! And then when I expanded the definition to include things that were just challenging, I found I still disagreed! 😉 But I think you can replace “Impossible” with “Everyone would understand if you just dropped this idea.” Sure, it might be crazy or a long shot, but is that really any reason to give up?

  7. Shanna Mann David Delp So I understand some of the bloggers and “communities” that lean that way. Do you really think it’s pervasive and oppressive? I don’t get that impression.

  8. David Delp I do think it’s pervasive, but if it’s oppressive, it’s mainly a benign oppression. It’s not like they’re trying to silence the voices of dissent. There just aren’t that many of those voices. It’s not like they’re intending to be an echo chamber. They’re just so numerous they consume all the oxygen.

  9. David Delp   I think your point about testing your limits as a means of practicing bravery & determination is an important one. I agree with you on the whole but wanted to add this point to the discussion. 

    I think that pushing yourself in certain ways does not always automatically translate into courage in other arenas. For example if you can climb mount Everest, you should be able to do something *seemingly* easier such as give a speech at a wedding, start a business or make new friends, right? I think you can see where I’m going with this! 😉 

    In some circumstances, it just doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes public speaking really is more terrifying to an individual than the possibility of an icy cold death on an isolated mountain, and no amount of unrelated-albeit-very-brave limit pushing will change that (just one example). In fact you might then use this to beat yourself up mentally. If I can do X why can’t I do Y?! 

    I’m not discounting your point, nor the value of adventures and feats of endurance, but just wanted to share that thought.

  10. Wow. This and your other post on toughness really have hit a nerve with me. Lots of things to think about…

    Joey’s last bullet point about proving our mettle prompted me to wonder: why the need to prove our mettle in the first place at all? I think trying to prove something simply for the sake of proving it to the outside world is ultimately fairly useless. However, you could argue it helps to bolster self-esteem. But in my mind this is a superficial, false kind of self esteem. It can be taken away very easily. When you get frail or ill, how will you continue to prove your mettle in the same manner? You can’t, and so you probably are going to feel crap about yourself. Unless you have other ways in which you value yourself and others.

    Many years ago I did this. I spent a lot of energy trying to prove I was brave. Then everything changed and I couldn’t prove my bravery in the ways I was conditioned to (working stupidly hard, gaining challenging qualifications etc.). So I started thinking about why I was so hell bent on achievements in this way. I think was partially using them to prop up my self-esteem. 

    What did I do? I redefined how I valued myself. Instead of thinking “wow, you’ve done A B and C, you’re one tough/clever/brave/unique/dedicated mofo” … I started veering towards judging myself based simply on my behaviour towards other people. It’s an issue of identity ultimately I guess. Your job, clothes, style, even your achievements don’t define you. Sure, they have the power to say a lot about you, but they don’t define you. So what defines us? How we treat others (with kindness, integrity, compassion etc. all those lovely things). That’s my take on it anyway. It’s a very laid back approach, and it works. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone nor they to me. 🙂

    I understand why people take on “wow factor” challenges though. Some people do them because they genuinely want to achieve that end goal, some enjoy the social perks they get from being seen to be tough (more kudos and respect) and some do them for personal growth. Or a mixture of all those reasons. And there is nothing wrong with that. 

    But ultimately, and I guess this is the crux of Shanna’s post, there ARE other ways to be amazing, tough and have adventures. I’m a big fan of finding simple pleasures and small adventures without having to travel far, if at all. 

    I’m optimistic. I honestly believe a significant chunk of the human race get this point. However, they’re the silent majority. You won’t see them blogging or sharing videos about their lives, but they do exist.

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