Intentional Adversity

Yesterday afternoon, I went back to CrossFit as I normally do with my wife, who takes the 5:30pm class. Usually, I work on my Strength Program while she takes the class. The Strength Training Program is an ongoing thing that I’m in the midst of, focusing on olympic lifts and building up strength using weights. I happen to really enjoy it and the challenges it represents.

But as my wife’s 5:30pm class was getting underway, Spencer brought up the subject of the October Challenge. I hadn’t heard about this yet, so my ears perked up and then I walked over to the white board to see what it was. Very simply, the challenge was to push the sled for an hour. Now, the sled in this case isn’t what you go hurtling down the hills on during a nice winter day. It’s an unsightly hunk of steel that weighs close to a hundred pounds. And you can add weight to it in many different (awful) combinations.

One of my other CrossFit pals had already done the challenge the night before. The standard was to add two 45 pound plates to the sled and wear a weighted twenty pound vest while pushing it for one hour. Spencer noticed my interested and asked if I wanted in. I told him, “Hell yes.”

But before that, I had to finish my strength training. Once I was done, I asked my wife if she had her headphones and then popped them into my iPhone. I asked Spencer what the parameters were for the challenge – if I could stop for water, etc. He said you could stop, the goal was to simply accumulate as many lengths of the 20-yard turf pushing the sled in one hour as possible.

Easy day.

Well, not easy at all. But that was the point. I got the sled out, put the weights on, and then strapped the vest on as well. I put on iTunes radio to the Def Leppard station, Spencer gave me a countdown, and then I was off.

For sixty minutes, I pushed that sled. Not non-stop. But my breaks were quick and involved sopping the pouring sweat from my face and rehydrating with my water bottle. With music literally blasting in my ears, I kept my head down and my legs churning. One length after another and another until my buddy Steve called out what I thought was thirty seconds. (Tough to hear with the music screaming). So for what I thought was thirty seconds, I pushed even harder – almost running the sled down the turf. I collapsed in a heap at the end.

But Steve kept yelling.

I’d misheard him; I had three minutes left.

Mentally, I had already resigned myself to being done. But three minutes left meant time for more lengths, so I shrugged it off, got back up off the turf, and kept pushing. I eked out maybe three more lengths during that time. And when all was said and done, I’d racked up 2,520 yards during my hour.

But the point of this post isn’t to tout what I achieved yesterday. It’s to talk about the idea of intentional adversity.

I’ll quote from a great article over on SOFREP.com on this same topic: “Too often our culture “Poo-poo’s” anything that is self inflicted. “You’re crazy” is a regular comment when we do things extreme or out of the ordinary. Well I think they’re crazy for not doing things out of the ordinary. Intentional adversity should be as important as intentionally working out. You build the strength before you need it.”

Indeed. The question almost always comes up from people who don’t know me well: why on earth would you do such a thing? Whether it’s pushing a sled for an hour or practicing martial arts or making a living as a writer or trying to get a production company off the ground – when I do things that “normal” society doesn’t do, the questions start and the faces range from pity (“Poor guy must be compensating for something.”) to bewilderment (“OMG I could never even *think* about doing something like that!”) to anger (“Who does he think he is doing all that stuff?”)

The reason why I do things like this is simple: because I want to live everyday of my life being challenged in some form or fashion. Life, to me, wasn’t meant to spent being complacent or content with mere mediocrity.

Look, my father died when he was 48 years old. My 44th birthday is next Thursday. My father’s death weighs on me – some days more than others – and I don’t intend to follow the same path he walked. A lot of people would look at that last statement and urge caution rather than (what they perceive as reckless) constant challenge. My view is different: it’s through constant challenge that I will succeed – at whatever I set my mind to accomplish.

By subjecting myself to constant challenge, I get up-close-and-personal with failure. I get to snuggle with my demons and confront them. I get to see where my strength ebbs and where it surges. I understand how my mind functions when tasked under extreme duress. All of this makes me stronger. All of this tests my willpower and the idea of “how bad do I want it?”

The problem with much of society these days is that we have traded this notion of “risk and reward” with the ideal of “comfortable complacency.” Go to school, get a degree, get a job, get married, get a house, have kids, work, retire, die. Simplified, to be sure, but this is the path that most of us follow. The days of people going off and exploring are a thing of the past. Only a small percentage become entrepreneurs. Most people looking for a mate give up and settle for someone who is “okay,” even if they dream of a romance that only gets better over time.

We’ve lost a lot of our passion for life.

By subjecting yourself to intentional adversity, it’s possible to reclaim that passion. It is through the crucible of heartache and gut-wrenching fatigue that we discover what truly fans the flames of our hearts. You realize that after pushing a sled for an hour that laying on the turf is actually pretty comfortable. That sipping water is like suckling at the teat of life itself. That your body is indeed miraculous and that you have just achieved – no matter how many or how few yards you pushed for – something that not a lot of other people would subject themselves to.

You get stronger.

Each time you challenge yourself to do more, to go faster, harder, heavier, your body, mind, and spirit respond. They burst from previous limitations and grow beyond the confines that we place on ourselves. It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be. It’s actually supposed to be as hard as it is because true growth is not possible without strife and difficulty.

But while the challenges may not get easier, your response to them does get better. It gets easier to subject yourself to the challenges placed before you because you’ve done it before. And every time you do it, you develop the strength to handle the next one that comes your way. You may not always succeed – but failure isn’t to be shied away from. Failure breeds more success than success itself does, because it teaches you to keep going.

There will be times when you want to quit: when you can’t see through the sweat and the tears and the heartache; when your body is falling apart and you can’t even walk straight; when your lungs are heaving and your guts want to empty themselves everywhere.

But it is within those darkest times that you find the purest form of strength, that little bit of light that illuminates the desire you have to finish and succeed.

And you keep going.

The 34th Grandmaster of Togakure-ryu Ninjutsu is fond of saying, “Keep going.” Indeed, the Japanese kanji character for “ninja” can be translated as “one who endures, perseveres, and ultimately succeeds under the greatest of pressures.” Special operators are also familiar with this concept: the grueling nature of selection for elite military units is designed to weed out those who are unable to push through the darkest times to emerge stronger than they thought they were capable of.

Through constant challenge, you get familiar with that pure strength. You know what it looks like, what it feels like, and how to call upon it when you need it most.

Without intentional adversity, that strength is just a concept – just an ideal that you read about on a blog or in a book – that you may never even recognize, or know you possess.

What would you do today if you knew you could do absolutely anything? If you knew that you could set your mind to accomplishing anything and be successful at it?

It’s possible. You could get lucky.

Or you can make success inevitable.

By subjecting yourself to the crucible of constant challenge – of intentional adversity – dreams and goals leave the realm of vague possibility.

And enter the realm of concrete inevitability.

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