Life’s a Series of Speedbumps

As we wind down our March or Spring break seasons, maybe some of us are returning from a week of sun and spirits somewhere deep South? Hopefully, we all have somewhere we think of during the cold, dark, Canadian Winter months as our “happy place”. For some of us it may mean exploring new places while for others it may be the comfort of returning to familiar surroundings over the years.

For our family, we discovered the Hawaiian Island of Kauai about 11 years ago and have enjoyed many return visits over the subsequent years. Embracing the same place for holidays provides peace of mind upon arriving from enjoying the humid, warm evening air exiting the plane, to rushing to the local Walmart before it closes in order to “score” necessities like a family size box of Lucky Charms and a two four of Coors. If I’m able, I try to sneak in a few four packs of Pacific Islander IPA behind a jug of milk. Though we’ve stayed in different accommodations, they have all been in the same area, “The Sunny Side or South side of the Island. A distinguishing feature of the community besides its proximity to beach and recreational amenities are a series of speed bumps which “greet” residents as they enter and exit the community. Spending much time going over these as well as walking by, these speed bumps have become a memorable part of our vacation visits. It is fascinating to watch the different approaches people have to these “obstacles”. Most slow down dramatically in anticipation of the “jolt” their vehicle (and occupants) will experience. They would seem to be acting to minimize their personal discomfort as opposed to being supremely safety conscious. They can’t possibly be caring deeply for the vehicle as 90% plus of people progressing in either direction on this road would be tourists in rental cars.

Witnessing vehicle after vehicle, day after day, visit after visit, painstakingly seeking to avoid discomfort, the parallel between these speed bumps and life becomes all too apparent. We seem to want to do anything we can to make life easier, to avoid discomfort, to minimize any difficulty for ourselves or those for whom we’re responsible. Why? How are we helping ourselves or others by avoiding difficulty? Who ever got better at anything without embracing a struggle? We would do well to consider Tony Robbins’ advice to us “Your biggest problem is thinking you shouldn’t have any problems.” 

In the spirit of seeking to be a responsible and constructive parent, I try to accelerate into the speed bumps to maximize the “experience” for all on board. Sometimes, if there are other vehicles in front we are forced to drive slower. I then try to time hitting the accelerator concurrent with the rear tires hitting the bump with hope of making our presence “heard”. If we won’t feel the bump fully, we’ll at least let out a little squeal of the tires. Both are efforts to illustrate the lesson that we would do well to try to make the best of whatever “problems” we are faced with as these aren’t to be avoided. It doesn’t matter who we are, we will be confronted with difficulties. Let’s not give them power over us they don’t deserve and let’s not defeat ourselves before we even face them by thinking we shouldn’t have any.

Author, Clive Thompson, spent several years studying and interviewing computer coders. He has just released an interesting book, Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, in which he details how this job is shaping our “new” economy and what skills the good coders have. One skill Thompson highlights as a key difference between great and average coders is the ability to constantly deal with frustration. Programming is referred to as a constant stream of failures. Thompson notes, “they’re all able to handle total, crushing, incessant failure and roadblocks (at least at the keyboard)….and this psychological storm doesn’t really let up, no matter how good you get or how long you code…they spend a lot of their time trying to figure out what’s wrong, why things aren’t working.”

I’d invite you to consider that life presents us not with blessings or burdens, but blessings in burdens. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. A developing area within the study of psychology is the field of Adversarial Growth. It is modeled on the German philosopher Nietzsche’s much used quote, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” There are limits, but more and more studies seem to reflect that encountering and managing some kind of struggle or adversity actually helps us get better and stronger.

Boxers can’t train without being exposed to some punches. Regardless of the fighting discipline, skills are sharpened by sparring. The adversity of getting hit is inherent to improvement. This isn’t something to avoid, but to embrace. When getting off the Summit Chair at our local ski hill, Panorama, tourists and locals alike stumble over each other in awe of the view that greets them. It is referred to as View of 1000 Peaks. One can see nothing but mountain after mountain in all directions for many, many kilometers. A Haitian proverb captures nicely this idea, “Behind mountains are more mountains.” When you summit a mountain, solve a problem, overcome adversity, you’re greeted with a view of the next one.

If obstacles are like our speed bumps in Kauai or like mountains for Haitians, maybe we would benefit from trying to look for the blessings within and embracing these as not just natural, but a welcomed source of growth. Or, we could try to heed advice Future Batman receives in Batman Begins, “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”