On Challenges (Part 1)

A while ago I was speaking with a friend and he said something along the lines of, “Life has always been easy for me. I know it’s not like that for everybody, but it is for me. So I have to do things specifically to make it challenging.”

It took me aback a little, because I’m somewhat opposite.

Life has always been difficult for me. Aspects of life have been easy, but life in general hasn’t been. Most people would probably call this some form of depression because it’s easy to put things in a box and label them.

I think depression is the wrong word.

It’s difficult to explain because in many ways I’ve been very privileged and things seem to come easily.

Even so, as long as I can remember I’ve always challenged myself to make certain things more difficult. Considering what I just stated a few sentences ago I’m not sure why I’ve felt compelled to do that.

You might call it goal setting, but it’s different. A goal is tangible. For example, you might set a goal to start a business that you can run from your home so you can spend more time with your children. You can grasp the why.

A challenge is different than a goal in that a challenge is a goal with no end game. There is no why.

For example, from the 3rd of August until the 2nd of September I took cold showers every morning. And by cold I mean all the way cold from beginning to end. No halfway cold or not all the way hot. Freezing, holy-crap-I-can’t-breathe, cold.

I’ll write more about cold showers another time, but what I got out of it was all mental. There was nothing particularly tangible about the challenge. It was a bit hellish and made life unpleasant for 5 minutes every day. It was a challenge for the sake of the challenge.

Most of the successful high achieving people I know do things like this. Yes, they set specific goals about finances, health, and relationships, but they also set challenges. Things they don’t really need to do that don’t seem to accomplish anything of substance.

A recent challenge I started on the 15th of September is to ride my bike at least 10km per day for 50 days straight. (I’ve actually been riding over 20km a day. There’s fun psychology behind that.) There’s no real point to this except I decided I wanted to ride a total of 1,000 miles (1,610 kilometers) this year and I was only about halfway there.

The average high temperature has been about 15C/59F lately and it also rained for most of the first week of the challenge. Again, it’s not supposed to be easy. (Though for some people this challenge is easy, because 15C/59F isn’t cold.)

This particular challenge was inspired by my friend Matt Frazier and his Lessons Learned from 50 Days of Running.

My favorite part of the article is the first two sentences:

Back in May, after two months of almost no exercise, I decided it was time to start running again. I didn’t have a goal, but I knew I had to get back out there.

Matt, as you can probably guess, is a high achieving individual. Maybe it’s a coincidence that he sets challenges for no other reason than, “I knew I had to.” But I think it’s possible that Matt, like many others, is a high achiever because he does stuff like this.

Another challenge Matt completed not long ago: he ran a 100 mile ultramarathon (no sleep, running for 28 hour 40 minutes). It’s something not a lot of people can do. Hell, it’s not something a lot of people want to do, because it makes life difficult for a period of time.

And recently (today, if you’re reading this the day I posted it), Matt published a great book. I preordered my copy last month and it’s a book I think you should read.

More than just read it, I’d like to see you use this book as a catalyst for change. A springboard for challenges. Make life a little bit difficult for yourself.

Matt’s book is called No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self.

No Meat Athlete is part practical how-to and part cook book and not at all preachy like you might expect from a veg*n book. And it’s not just for runners or for veg*ns.

It’s a book many vegetarian and vegan athletes (and non-athletes) will buy. But I’d like to see the “What?! Nope, I need me some bacon” people to give it a chance. Not forever. Just long enough to prove to yourself that you can.

I know most people will never go veg*n for life. But it would be outstanding if more people set challenges like, “I’m gonna go vegan for 30 days even though I’m pretty sure I can’t live without cheese.”

I think you’ll see once you start doing challenges for no reason than to do them the benefits will permeate to other aspects of your life. So OK, you caught me, I guess I lied about there being no end game behind challenges.

When you do something like, “Go vegan for 30 days” or “Take freezing cold showers for 31 days,” it builds confidence. “Well, that wasn’t easy, but I know I can accomplish things I didn’t think I’d be able to.”

You learn a little more about what you’re made of and what you can handle.

It just feels good.

Buy No Meat Athlete here, set a difficult challenge, feel good.


P.S. I actually paid for my paperback copy of No Meat Athlete though Matt did send me a digital copy to preview last week. Even if you don’t buy the book I hope you start setting challenges to show yourself what you’re made of.

P.P.S. If this has inspired you to set a difficult challenge, whether it’s to go vegan for 30 days or something else, let me know below.

22 Responses to On Challenges (Part 1)

  1. CANNOT WAIT to read about the cold shower challenge. I love those slightly masochistic challenges. And challenges in general. I consider them a hobby. I love reading books about year-long challenges (Julie and Julia, Happiness Project, Year of Living Biblically, Drop Dead Healthy, etc).

    I had a goal of running 150 miles in 6 weeks. It was derailed by an injury and then an illness, but I’m going back to the starting line and trying it again. Because that’s what you do: you try again.

    Also am lining up some other challenges for the rest of the year (seven-day fruit fast, daily meditation, a few others) because I find them so ridiculously engaging and telling. I’ll report back with more as I come up with them.

    • I’m not usually too big on masochistic challenges, which is I think somewhat why the cold showers appealed to me. It was something completely different.

      Interested to hear about your other challenges as they progress.

  2. Right now I am challenging myself to finish by 2nd novel. I barely got a breather from finishing the first. While I work at this project, I plan to mix things up by reading my notes while on treadmill – I feel sitting at my desk for too long is not healthy and I have to do something about it – I also like to read my pages out loud, to myself. Cold showers – not so much. Thanks for your inspiration Karol.

  3. I’m planning to do the NaNoWriMo challenge, writing 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. I’m eager to get started and also scared I’ll flop. Gotta keep thinking, though, anything I get done is more than I had before! Here’s the site if anybody’s interested: http://nanowrimo.org

  4. I was going to say I’m going cold shower for the next 6 months, but there’s a why – my shower only has cold water.

    I think about this a lot. I’m running a 10K (I haven’t run seriously since an injury) and I want to shift my daily habits. The first is waking up and meditating first thing in the morning (instead of going straight to email/work).

    • Interesting. Is it really cold or “Asia cold”?

      My shower for the 2 months I was in India only had cold water, but that “cold” was more like warm than oh-boy-I-can’t-breathe-cold. It was completely bearable and not shivering. :)

      • Ha good point! It’s probably somewhere between cold and shivering cold. And it’s actually a relief from Cambodian heat than anything else! :)

  5. I am challenging myself to learn Python for at least two hours a day for the next… let’s say, thirty days. Given that I’ve zero background in any coding, it’ll certainly be a challenge as opposed to simply an activity. And by the time the thirty days is up, it’ll be further into spring, so I’ll be able to continue the coding in the sunshine. Win/win.

  6. I have heard of these challenges, but never tried them, I’ll set my self one for the rest of the year to see what can I achieve.

  7. Oh, Karol – I can so relate to the difficulty / challenge thing.

    I really appreciate how you are connecting the dots between setting challenges and high-achieving traits.

    Yes! That’s such a kinder, probably more accurate way of looking at it than thinking: WhyTF am I making everything so hard for myself? Or seeing it through a negative lens of depressive or OCD tendencies, which…yeah…those are there for me…and…I am constantly challenging myself to not be limited by my psychological wiring.

    I’ve always set creative, physical, lifestyle and dietary challenges…I think it’s a fun way to live and it generates creative solutions.

    Challenges are a way to put action to ideas, rather than letting ideas just remain thoughts and imaginings. If I didn’t make challenges, I’d be just a creative dreamer…not an author or painter of more than a 1,000 paintings. :)

    I’ll check out the No Meat Athlete book – thanks for sharing it!

    Are there a lot of hills where you are cycling?

    I’m back in the SF Bay Area until November and have been riding my bike over the Golden Gate Bridge from the steep side: Marin to SF. And then back, which involves a nice coast into Sausalito. When I’m on a bike I just feel so alive and happy, even though it’s…challenging.

    So, maybe challenges are part of the happy factor that achievers need to feel good?

    • “WhyTF am I making everything so hard for myself?” Hehe, I ask myself the same question. Even with the reframe of “it’s a challenge” or “it’s a Stoic challenge” (a personal favorite way to trick myself) it doesn’t always make it easier.

      re: cycling. No not many hills. My usual total climb in a 20km ride is about 150m and my usual decent is about the same. It’s mostly flat around here.

      “So, maybe challenges are part of the happy factor that achievers need to feel good?”

      It could be. I know I feel better when I complete a challenge, though that’s only anecdotal.

  8. Karol,

    Have you read Joel Runyon’s (Impossible HQ’s Founder) cold shower therapy article series? It motivated me to start challenging myself every morning, and there’s really no way I could ever go back now that I’ve felt the exhilarating feeling of a cold shower in the morning.

    The articles are here : http://impossiblehq.com/cold-shower-therapy-guide

    It’s awesome to find communities of self improvement and challenging on the Internet, helps you to keep faith in the human race ;)


  9. This is interesting. I’m not a particularly athletic person, so I tend to set physical challenges for myself. At the moment, I’m involved in training for a kettlebell (or girevoy) sport competition in February. Back in January (New Year’s!), I set myself the goal of lifting a million pounds (with kettlebells) over the course of the year. Things happened along the way (injuries, life events) and I’m unlikely to meet that goal, but the exercise has helped make my training more consistent, so it’s still a win. The kicker in all of this is that I’m in my 50s and most KB sport competitors are much younger. Many of my friends and family are mystified by all this, but I’ve always had the urge to find out how far I could take something and what I could learn about myself along the way. Going to extremes creates paths to self-knowledge, I think.

  10. I’ve been a vegan for nearly 10 months just because one day I decided I wanted to try it out. It’s been incredible. I’m gonna try that cold shower thing. Looking forward to it. Thanks.

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