Two years ago a Life Flight helicopter airlifted me out of the Cascade mountains with a traumatic brain injury. Physical recovery was relatively quick, but some of the counterproductive psychological effects required more time. Primarily, debilitating self-doubt.
Almost everyone has some level of self-doubt when confronted with challenge or distress. The realization that there will not be a way over (or around) a hardship. An anxious curiosity around how am I exactly going to get through this?
That self-doubt eventually faded, and gratitude grew in its place. Gratitude for having had the experience despite the difficulty. The deeper connections with friends and those I love and who were there for me. The better understanding of self and the value of time. And the newfound confidence and empathy from persevering.
It’s not uncommon for anyone to see a challenge or difficulty they managed to navigate as a lifelong learning moment, or a necessary turning point that unlocked a positive outcome. And almost always, that realization is in hindsight.
We know challenge and adversity build resilience and adaptability, and we often hear stories of gratitude for hardship (and each of us more than likely have a few stories of our own). This made me wonder; if adversity is such a powerful teacher, and is a somewhat inevitable part of life, why are we so poorly prepared for it?
Innovation removes difficulty.
Watch any commercial for a new product or service. The value almost every brand promotes – directly or indirectly – is ease. And if we are given two ways to reach the same goal, choosing the easier of the two must be the sane choice. Easier is common sense, right? How many times did we hear something like why do you insist on making it harder for yourself? (I heard that question frequently from my high school guidance counselor.)
But maybe the more interesting question is what do you stand to lose by making it easier for yourself? The better we clever humans get at making every facet of life easier, the less exposure we have to challenge, and less prepared we are for it when adversity inevitably presents itself.
Knowledge assumes competence.
No question education is key to developing a skill that can be applied to successfully accomplishing a task. Yet, we hear stories about experts who were not equipped to adapt to an unforeseen situation in what would seem to be their general area of competence. A data analyst that now needs to present their findings to an audience of creative designers. A competitive sprinter that is filling in for an endurance runner in a marathon. A police officer that arrives on the scene of a house fire ten minutes before the fire fighters arrive.
We know how to accomplish a task we have been trained to do. Most of us simply have not been taught how to approach managing the typically stressful response to unplanned and unfamiliar variations of that task.
Fear drives paralysis.
Fear is a natural response to adversity. An instinctive caution – real or imagined – that risk is present. And this natural response frequently causes us to freeze. We are not formally taught how to manage fear and approach the cause of the fear with reason. And inaction when action is required – the freeze – escalates quickly to panic.
For me, the Marine Corps was a learning experience like no other in this regard. A significant portion of combat training was allocated to creating extreme stresses in dynamic situations and pushing emerging leaders to detach, think, adapt, and most critically, to act.
Foregoing all useful innovations, assuming expertise does not equal competence, and joining the Marine Corps for the sake of welcoming challenge and building adaptability may be a bit extreme. A more practical thought exercise to consider is creating a challenge (that typically triggers some level of fear or anxiety) and asking how would I do this, if I do not have that. We have a map, but no compass. How do we get home.
Being prepared for adversity is about more than deciding to be determined, promising to be more resilient, claiming mental toughness, or acting with more grit. We want to be these things, but believing we are these things without understanding how to build resilience is like believing we are all musicians because we each bought a guitar.
The most valuable life learnings, personal growth opportunities, and opportunities to help others, seem to come from experiences with significant challenges that we manage to get through or overcome. The struggles and hardships – physical, mental, spiritual, intellectual, or emotional, are what continue to teach me the most about my self, and how to navigate life.
From the pandemic and an environmental tipping point to divisive politics and social unrest, adversity and unease are acutely present in all our lives. It would seem now could not be a more appropriate time to explore how adversity influences our thoughts and actions, and learn how to effectively approach the challenges that will shape who we are, and want to become.