Just over 25 years ago, I was enjoying a flight from Toronto to Bermuda. I was travelling with a friend and we were going to visit friends who were working as accountants in the tax haven. The flight took us south into US airspace where the plane would head East over the Atlantic around New York. It was summer 1996 and a commercial jetliner had recently crashed off the Eastern coast of the US. The crash of TWA Flight 800 was still fresh in passenger’s minds. As we began to fly over the ocean we encountered turbulence. The captain had told passengers to return to their seats and to remain seated with seatbelts fastened. He had some heads up that some rougher air was anticipated. Meal service had just been delivered and people were consuming some crackers and cheese. Initial bumps were barely noticeable. Then, they got a little bigger. The plane dropped like we had gone off the top of a roller coaster. But the bottom couldn’t be found. We kept falling. The virtual silence of content chewing was shattered by gasps and sharp screams. Food trays hit the floor followed by drinks and other loose belongings. The contents of the beverage cart clinked and clanged rattling faster than the hearts of passengers. Fortunately, the plane found its footing. It moved forward continuing to bump around in the remaining turbulence.
As things settled down, I took comfort that what felt like a shock to passengers was something our pilots likely had experience both in frequency and intensity. Having been bumped repeatedly over the years, pilots develop tolerance such that abrupt changes in air afford less scare. They develop what’s known as bump tolerance. Amateur pilots are encouraged to develop experience in challenging circumstances. Stalls, spins, tangles, and other issues are introduced in somewhat controlled environments to give pilots confidence in handling hiccups. The goal is less about preparing a pilot for the problem and more about developing confidence in their capability to handle issues as they arise. Several fields build suffering into their evaluation programs not because the ability to suffer is crucial to the role. Instead, the goal is to see how people make decisions under stress. For example, much military training involves subjecting participants to some gruelling experiences. As physically challenging as the tasks may be, it is mental toughness that is being as developed.
One task that Navy Seals are exposed to is called Drownproofing. The name is all too descriptive. The task is introduced to them based on a story involving a solider during the Vietnam war. A captured soldier had hands and feed tied separately, then dumped from a boat into a river. He was able to find a way to bob up and down while slowly inching his way to the shore to survive. They never really know if the story is true or not. Trainees have their feet tied together and their hands tied behind their backs. From this compromised state they are dumped into a pool with little instruction but to survive. Can the victim maintain calmness and control such that they can help themselves endure this ordeal? This is the true challenge. Can one control their fear and emotions such that they remain capable of functioning? Fear breeds panic which breeds choking which leads to disaster. The successful find a way to overcome their fear and instead of fighting to surface allow themselves to sink to the pool’s bottom from which they push off with just enough force to surface, inhale, and repeat. This can be repeated for a long time when done patiently and carefully. Soldiers aren’t subjected to this training because it may be something they experience in battle. No, they are exposed to it because the goal is to evaluate how they function mentally while tolerating incredibly tough conditions. Former Navy Seal and Green Beret now turned ultra-endurance athlete, David Goggins, refers to this type of training as callousing the mind. He embraces exposure to difficulty for the sole purpose of increasing our ability to tolerate adversity.
What techniques like bump tolerance and drownproofing offer is the strength that comes from facing challenging circumstances makes everyday headaches less impactful. These are proven paths to stiffening our spine. Just like we build bone density by bearing a load and muscles by pushing against resistance, struggle strengthens. Charles Koch noted, “Remember that often adversity is a blessing in disguise and is certainly the greatest character builder.” Difficulty develops. Pain produces progress. Character is built by slowly and gradually exposing ourselves to more challenging circumstances. The idea that exposure to stress serves is supported by the history behind it. The Stoics over two thousand years ago preached its benefits. The slave turned philosopher, Epictetus, asked, “What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar—and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.” His own life was an example of suffering that made him who he was. He calloused his mind by developing a belief that suffering was a part of building character. Epictetus observed, “The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic class material.” Before Epictetus, a separate Stoic philosopher, Seneca, observed, “Fire tests gold, suffering tests brave men.” The great writer, Ernest Hemingway, recognized pain was almost an inherent precursor to positive prose. Hemingway observed, “Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia. Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.” In Manage Your Day-to-Day, one of the contributors acknowledges that taking the easy way isn’t the path to improvement writing, “Why adopt a crutch only to let your muscles atrophy? Why cheat yourself of the effort? The work, the process, is the goal. It builds character. It makes us better.” Similarly, Cal Newport writes in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, “Strain, I now accepted, was good. Instead of seeing this discomfort as a sensation to avoid, I began to understand it the same way that a body builder understands muscle burn: a sign that you’re doing something right.” These authors began to yearn for the burn. They learned that pain paved the way for gain.
Competence comes from conquering challenges and confidence follows competence. Accepting adversity also involves building our capacity to carry it. We increase our tolerance to trouble by exposing ourselves to it just like we can inoculate ourselves to a virus through vaccines. We learn to develop confidence in our capacity to carry challenge when we have earned competence from facing challenges. We can never truly believe in ourselves or our abilities if we haven’t shown ourselves and others that we can perform under difficult conditions. Canadian figure skating coach, Doug Leigh, has observed that “most of life’s lessons are not friendly.” Writer T.S. Elliott observed, “Only those who dare to go too far will ever discover how far they can go.” Jensen writes in Igniting the Third Factor, “Success in sport and in life is all about learning to deal with and overcome obstacles and challenges. In today’s fast-paced workplace, can you really afford to have people who drag their feet and become paralyzed when they encounter unexpected changes, disappointments, setbacks, failures—in other words, adversity? Of course not.”
Adversity is like a form of exercise. We can expose ourselves to it in controlled environments to expand our capacity to endure it. Good leaders ensure their team is able to experience adversity in advance of crisis so that when change and crisis actually arrive they’re best suited to manage things. Confidence follows competence. Success Over Struggle Strengthens or SOSS as the secret sauce. Jensen writes, “The most effective way to build confidence in our performers is through the successful completion of a challenging goal, or through the triumphant conquering of adversity. Genuine confidence, real confidence, comes from the successful completion of a task important to the performer.” Jensen offers an old Buddhist expression, “Every meditation hall needs a fly.” These are the coaches that train for crowd noise and sudden sounds which may disrupt performance. They do this in training to build resilience to reality. Jensen introduces a track coach, Gary Winckler, who believes in introducing stress as a training tool. WInckler offers, “We spend a lot of time creating adversity in order to get the training effect. You could say it’s just a simple application of the principle of overload. When we try to get an athlete stronger, we increase the overload, make it more difficult. We present the adversity to the training.”
In other words, nuisance is necessary. It’s not about over-loading others. It’s not about piling on more and more pressure to try to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s not about trying to sort and shuffle those less able to bear the load to the side. It’s not about trying to be a pain. It’s about developing and building. What kind of nuisance is necessary? Those that show strength at handling a challenge can be given more stimulating tasks to take on. Not to burn them out, but to engage their full energies. Overcoming adversity can be rewarded with additional responsibility. Others on the team see the reward for handling headaches and want to be in a similar position. This creates a positive culture around pressure. Adversity can also be created by assigning a high level task without detail about how to do, who to involve, and when to complete. Developing initiative to pursue progress in the face of uncertainty is the exact kind of skill we’re trying to build. Instead of offering guidance, encourage your staff to work through on their own.
Another way to build capacity for working under pressure that some workplaces have implemented is to pick a period where an additional percentage of work will try to be completed. A manager may suggest the team seeks to accomplish more work over the next three weeks, even if longer hours are needed. The carrot dangling at the end of the period is taking Friday afternoons off for July and August. Staff learn both that they’re capable of doing more in less time and find ways to become efficient. They also learn that when a crisis does hit and the team needs to pull together to work harder, they have the capabilities to do so. Moreover, this isn’t them being squeezed for someone else’s gain, they are choosing to contribute and looking forward to enjoying the trade of time and burden today for benefit tomorrow. Taking on a task outside of work together as a team is another way to introduce adversity and develop team members. This can be done by signing up together for a sport like softball or hockey or an fitness challenge. Alternately, it can be done by committing to a project for a charity or a fundraiser. The roles of the team can shift from season to season in order to give others the chance to gain experience doing different tasks.
In what small ways can we work to build our capacity by incorporating struggle into our lives? Some time ago, our eldest son was socializing with friends and trying their luck being pub philosophers. With each sip they got a little smarter. At some point, the question of whether someone could just show up and survive a marathon arose. All participants to the conversation were in their mid-twenties. Only one figured they could show up and complete a marathon with little to no training. All the others thought it a ridiculous idea to even contemplate. Perhaps, the bold one was the one that had taken larger sips? A challenge was quickly posed for the one brave enough to argue for possibility. He took the challenge and agreed to attempting to complete a marathon distance a week later. A venue was settled upon. An outdoor high school track. The marathoner-to-be figured the track would be softer than pavement and easier on the untrained body. The others figured the location offered a comfortable place from which to sit and drink beers while heckling/encouraging their friend’s efforts.
The day of the challenge arrived and the guinea pig showed up to what would become his hamster wheel for the better part of the day. Good spirits guided the initial efforts. The fun didn’t last long and was replaced by fatigue. Sore lungs, sore legs, sore feet, sore things he didn’t know he had. From jogging to shuffling to walking to struggling, our marathoner soldiered on. After five and a half hours, five hours and thirty-two minutes to be exact, our young lad succeeded in completing his challenge. He did what he said he, and others, could do. He completed a marathon with, effectively, zero training. He wasn’t an athlete or a regular runner of any kind. He had been hit with the quarantine fifteen like many. He simply believed that we’re capable of a lot more than we think. He wanted to prove to himself as well as others that his belief was true. A five and a half hour marathon is nothing special at all. Yet, it is a lot more than nothing. It’s proof of persistence. It’s proof of plodding in the presence of pain. Much of the time spent during the activity was under the influence of discomfort.
He left that afternoon both having earned his beers that evening and internalizing that he had capabilities inside of him he may not have been sure about a day earlier. The others simply had internalized more beer. They still were under the same psychological limitations they had imposed on themselves by suggesting the challenge wasn’t possible. Maybe not to them, but to others, like their friend, it certainly was. Our runner was a winner on many levels. Whatever few bucks he was able to extract from his friends paled in comparison to the personal pride that his competence won him in newfound confidence. He now knows he can push further for longer. This will likely lead him to build on this chasing new challenges.
The Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus wrote a series of essays which have been compiled into a book titled The Teachings of a Roman Stoic. In an essay titled, On Training, Rufus writes, “There are two kinds of training, one which is appropriate for the soul alone, and the other which is common to both soul and body. We use the training common to both when we discipline ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, meagre rations, hard beds, avoidance of pleasures, and patience under suffering. For by these things and others like them the body is strengthened and becomes capable of enduring hardship, sturdy and ready for any task; the soul too is strengthened and becomes capable of enduring hardship and for self-control by abstinence of pleasures.”
Rufus offers a path for us to build stamina which will allow us to endure. Perhaps we can consider:
- Cold water exposure. Turn the water from warm to cold during the last 30 seconds of a shower and work to build this to the entire length of the shower.
- Occasionally, intentionally sleep less. Instead of working on the recommendations of getting eight hours of sleep, try to manage a workday on five hours of sleep.
- Consider skipping a meal once a week. Go without breakfast or miss a lunch or dinner. Consider once a quarter or once a year fasting for a day.
- Practice holding your breath and resisting the urge to inhale. Time yourself. Try to improve five seconds each week. This is a tactic that could be done daily for a minute or more.
- Pass on dessert or drinks for a month. Participate in a Dry February challenge, for example.
- While exercising try to do some basic math problems in your head or recite a quote or verse from memory. Put yourself under slight physical duress and then try to carry on a conversation with someone or do some thinking.
- After reading an article that you considered useful, take five minutes to write down a key takeaway.
Try to expose yourself to something regularly that tests you. It’s not just exposure to physical stress, but mental discomfort we should consider. You can also consider doing things that scare you. It doesn’t have to be daily, but a handful of times a year, do something you’ve been avoiding or typically makes you uncomfortable. Volunteer to give a speech. Seek to have that conversation you’ve been avoiding. If you’re not the protesting kind, go to a protest. If you are the protesting kind, write a letter to the newspaper instead. Tryouts are tough. Auditions are adversity. Seek to sign up and be picked for a team or a performance of some kind in order to put some callous on your character. Sign up for a physical challenge like a run or a walk or a cross-fit class. Pick something you haven’t done before physically and sign up for it. All of these will build your ability to endure discomfort and increase your ability to perform under pressure. Rufus closes his essay On Training with, “I repeat…the person who is in training must strive to habituate himself not to love pleasure, not to avoid hardship…” In a subsequent essay aptly titled That One Should Disdain Hardships, Rufus writes, “And so it remains for me to say that the man who is unwilling to exert himself almost always convicts himself as unworthy of good, since we gain every good by toil.” Several thousand years later, leadership writer John Maxwell offered us, “Everything worthwhile is uphill.” All that brings pride, satisfaction, and achievement follows some form of struggle. In order to accomplish worthwhile things we must be prepared to endure being uncomfortable. Perhaps, blisters do have their benefits. They become the basis of a toughened callous.