In this essay, I examine one of the greatest sources of joy and fulfillment, one which is seldom identified correctly and brought into open. That’s because many people are not in a place to be able to tap into it, so they fail to recognize it for what it is. But when you get it, it’ll move you and energize you like nothing else.
In a hurry? Read the digest version.
When we think of what makes life fun, we tend to think of activities like traveling, eating good food or spending time with family/friends. I am not about to dispute that — I look forward to those rewards myself. However, there is something else that lies beyond those pleasurable activities that can charge you up and get you excited to live, in an even more powerful way.
It’s called challenges.
Now, for some people, this may be either a bad news or simply untrue. I have enough problems already, you may say. How can challenges possibly add anything good to my life?
If you feel that way about challenges, I can affirm you that what you’re feeling is very valid. There is a good reason why you are not getting energy out of challenges and are not desiring any more of it. But before we get to that, let’s examine how and why challenges can be good for you.
Born to Challenge
My 4-year-old asks to do the monkey bar every time we’re at a playground near our house. As of this writing, she can probably hang from one bar for about 10 seconds max — not even a chance of swinging and grabbing the next bar. But yet, she asks every time, to try it. I must admit it’s easy to feel it’s a nuisance, but I patiently hold her up each time.
Similarly, one of my 1-year-old’s current challenges is going down stairs. It’s a very dangerous act — lose a balance and you can get hurt very badly. It always makes us parents nervous. Yet, he keeps trying. He recently became able to go down by himself. Now he won’t have any of Daddy holding him — if we’re going down any stairs, that means he’s going to do it himself. It’s a problem he recently conquered, and he’s relishing every opportunity to experience his new ability.
Desire to tackle challenges is innate in us. It’s because that’s how we grow. The tasks that stretch the limit of what we can do, the problems that are hard to solve, a conundrum that requires all our wits and might — these are exciting because they engage us. They require us to. You can’t tackle these while letting your mind get distracted, daydreaming in alternate universe. It forces us to be 100% present, pour all our attention to here and now. When we are challenged, we become one cohesive piece, having to call up all our resources to handle the task at hand.
And this is very fulfilling. Our system is simply designed that way.
Consciously Choosing Difficulty
When I was in high school, I had this English teacher who had us write a short story, a parody of some other books we read. So I wrote a little sequel to Huckleberry Finn, in which he witnesses a secret courting between a black man and a white woman — a definite taboo in the era the original book was set. My teacher was so impressed with my story that she suggested I pursue an English major in college.
I was flattered by the compliment, but the thought didn’t appeal to me. Because at the time, I had already discovered something much more challenging: making music with a guitar.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that I’m such a gifted writer that writing comes easy to me, nor am I suggesting that writing is a shallower pursuit than music. But to me personally, making music is harder yet its reward greater — as a great piece of music stirs up profound emotion and moves my very core.
And playing the guitar is the center of that challenge in my world, as I love and identify with the instrument, but yet it is such a difficult instrument to me. It is quite possibly the most difficult, yet the deepest and vastest pursuit I have engaged in. To this day, I struggle with the instrument every time I pick it up, but I love the challenge. Earlier in my life I had some mental blocks that prevented me from enjoying my guitar, but now I’m at a place where every second holding my guitar is sheer joy. Because it’s so hard to play it.
Why do people challenge themselves to run a marathon or a triathlon? I’m not a runner myself, but I understand that running a full marathon is so challenging that it tears some of the muscles, and the body has to recover for a while afterward. From a non-runner’s point of view, it’s easy to scratch our head and go ” why does anyone want to hurt themselves so badly?” Yet I understand why people do it.
The harder it is, the greater its potential for joy.
Of course, I’m not saying that all difficult problems are life-giving. The problem has to be worth solving, and the process of doing so have to be pleasurable to you. The point is to identify the true source of our motivation, the energy that makes us want to get out of bed every morning and start living. It lies in engaging in worthy challenges in your life.
Desire for a Challenging Life
Modern capitalistic society often calls an easy life a good one. They cannot be more mistaken. Sure, modern conveniences can help us, when and only if it frees us up to take on greater challenges. For a little kid, tying a shoe string is a great challenge, one worth seeking out opportunities to do so. For an adult, it may be nothing but a chore. Shoes that take time to put on may get in the way of us getting going. But if we use the ease our tools offer us to become complacent, to indulge, and to live an easy life, then we’re missing out on great opportunities.
Most of people in middle-class and above live in one of these two situations: you either have too many wrong kind of problems, or you’re bored. Either way you are stressed, forcing your brain to engage in problems you hare no desire to solve. If you fall in the latter camp, then seeking out worthy challenges have a good chance of giving you the kick you needed to make your life exciting and engaging.
If you fall in the former camp, then your sentiment probably falls along the same line as the one I presented in the beginning. If so, don’t force yourself to take on more challenges — even worthy ones. You simply are not in the right place to tap into the life-giving capacity of good challenges. Instead, seek rest and relief from your burdens first.
But make no mistake. Our thirst for worthy challenges are built into us. When you restore the original balance into your system, out of which will born a healthy desire to seek and climb some daunting mountains. Congratulations — you are about to explore the best that life has to offer.
Life is not meant to be unchallenged. Seek out difficulties, seek out great problems. It will unlock your full capacity for growth and joy. The way you are meant to be.
What Are the Worthy Challenges in Your Life?
What do you find as your worthy challenge? What problems are so hard to solve that they excite you?
Have you ever looked at a situation and assumed it would be stressful to resolve it, but ended up enjoying the process?
There’s no joy like being engaged in a challenge that is worth pouring every fiber in your being. Please share your experience, so that some of us who have not been there can envision and aspire to pursue worthy challenges.