Are You Choosing the Right Challenges?

I  think this is one the most important articles I’ve written. I think this topic is so important, and it’s rarely talked about.

I wasted a lot of time in my life and gone through a lot of suffering because I didn’t get it, and I’ve watched a lot of friends, colleagues, and classmates do the same. If you agree, please share the message.

As a coach, I’m frequently in conversation with clients and friends facing dilemmas. Option 1 or Option 2? Job A or Job B?  School C or School D?

I often hear them say, “I’m thinking maybe I should choose the harder option (the one that is turning my stomach upside down as I think about it right now), because then I will grow.

This is a widespread, treasured notion in our culture: stretch yourself in order to grow.

It’s true: we do grow from challenges, but after watching dozens of friends make the “do the harder option and grow” choice (and doing that several times myself) here’s what I’ve seen: there are some challenges from which we grow beautifully. We come out the other side, stronger, better, blossoming, even. Then there are hard experiences of challenge that leave us battered and beat down and less than what we were when we started.

What makes the difference?

It’s not persistence or special skills. It’s not glass half full or glass half empty thinking.

It’s the kind of challenges we choose.

There are two different kinds of challenges that we’ve confused. One kind serves us. One kind harms us and wastes years of our lives. We’ve conflated them together, to our detriment.

Leap Challenges

Leap challenges stretch you to stop procrastinating, distracting and delaying and instead:

  • Step up into who you really are
  • Share your unique gifts and voice
  • Take the risk of being authentic (read: leaving the herd)
  • Do things that fly in the face of the negative beliefs or limiting stories you have about yourself
  • Face all kinds of fears as you do this

Leap challenges shake up all the parts ourselves need to be shaken up– the fears, the little ego stories, the instinctual, over-protective irrational part of ourselves that Seth Godin calls the lizard brain.

Leap Challenges are gifts. They grow us. They rebirth us. They create breakthroughs in our lives. When a Leap Challenge shows up in your life, go for it.

Slog Challenges

Slog Challenges challenge your essence, your particular voice / brilliance / contribution / unique core self.

Slog Challenges starve your essence of the things it needs to thrive. They require you to work / live / create in environments that are just not nurturing for you, that are not the right fit, that are square-peg round hole, that take you out of your flow. They require you to work / live / create in environments in which you are unheard or unwelcomed, underutilized or even mistreated.

Here’s the problem. That essence part of us doesn’t thrive from challenge. It is more like a plant; it simply needs the sun, water and nutrients (read: people, culture, context, schedule) it needs.  How crazy would you need to be to try to improve or strengthen a plant by giving a different amount of water than it needs or sunlight than it needs?

Challenge doesn’t help your essence any more than withholding light and water is going to make a better plant. It just leads to withering.

If you put yourself through a Slog Challenge, you’ll get some benefits, no question. Connections, learning, a prestigious line on the resume, money.

But here’s what you will likely pay for that: loss of vitality, loss of confidence, loss of creativity, and a mighty strengthening of your fears.

Plus, important warning: after a person leaves a slog situation, its effects persist, sometimes for years. There’s a long, not-so-easy process involved in getting your voice back, coaxing creativity out of its hiding place, rekindling dreams and rebuilding courage. Not everyone successfully recovers what’s been lost. Not everyone remembers or finds the will to turn back to their dreams and gifts.

An Example

Carol is an artist. Her creativity is inspired by time in nature. Her dream is to run her own business doing creative portrait photography. Of course, that dream also scares the hell out of her: what if people don’t like her work? What if she builds it and nobody comes?

Leap Challenges for Carol might look like:

  • Committing to do one photography session a week with individuals and families, starting this week.
  • Researching what it will really take to start the business.
  • Sending out a letter to 50 friends offering portrait services

These will feel challenging to Carol because they require her to question her beloved little story that she’s not “ready yet.” Because they require her to step into the ring and fight her fears.

Slog Challenges look like this: Taking that job that feels like it squelches the artist in her. Moving into the heart of city, where she knows she’ll struggle to access creative inspiration. Going to a prestigious art school that she senses will not nurture her creativity, because she’s convinced herself that she needs a fancy degree to pursue her dream.

Slog challenges will help her gain a few new skills, new connections, but mostly they will help her put off the daring work of claiming her dream. And, as she pursues them, she’s likely to start to grow more afraid, more confused, more cut off from her flow.

Discerning Leap vs. Slog

Clearly, knowing whether you are facing a Leap Challenge or a Slog Challenge is very important. Here’s how you know.

Recognize a Leap Challenge–a challenge to your ego/ fears/ limiting beliefs/ lizard brain–by these clues:

  • The challenge entails leaping into imperfect, vulnerable action
  • Fears of failure and rejection are rising up like tidal waves in you
  • You feel scared scared scared, but you also feel an edge of thrill or exhilaration in the fear
  • Your brain scrambles for reasons why now is not the time to leap, for example: you don’t have the time or money, the equipment. You hear arguments about all that in your head.

Recognize a Slog Challenge–the kind that’s about starving your essence–by these clues:

  • Your reasons for going after it come from your head, not from your heart or gut instinct
  • You feel tense and tight when you think about it
  • You feel confused by complex, intricate pro and con arguments
  • As you move into the challenge, you feel more and more lost from yourself. You feel disempowered, sad or weakened.

What To Do

  1. Seek out Leap Challenges. Create them for yourself, and claim them when life brings them to you.
  2. With a spirit of self-protection and self-care, be very careful about putting yourself through Slog Challenges.
  3. When you are faced with a challenge, find out what type it is, using the discernment clues.
  4. If you are in a slog situation now, start getting clear about the kind of environment in which you thrive. What kind of culture? What type of work? What kinds of relationships? To uncover this, think back to your past peak experiences and look for common elements across them. Make a list of these elements and post it where you’ll see it regularly. Find simple ways to bring these elements into your life, right away. Then, start creating your plan to transition out of your slog environment.

You have your particular brilliance. You have a calling. Spend your energies stepping into it. Watch out for romanticization or valorization of the slog. Watch out for the arguments your own mind will make about how suffering will aid you. Do the scary-thrilling-messy-now thing. Start anyway you can, but start now.

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