Last night, as I was lying in bed drifting off to sleep, I was thinking about the idea of building resiliency. We use resiliency to persevere through hardships. Part of my motivation for the 30 Day Winter Barefoot Challenge is to actively build some resiliency, which is something I haven't done in a while.
The actual ***running*** part of the challenge is pretty easy (despite the fact that I sound like I have advanced stage tuberculosis in these early runs.) The tough part is actually facing the discomfort. In yesterday's run, I had to deal with freezing-but-not-quite-frozen mud. This morning, I had to deal with darkness:
In both cases, I really didn't want to do the run even though I knew the suckiness would only last a few minutes. Now, running a few hundred meters without shoes in chilly conditions is hardly performing brain surgery, scaling Kilimanjaro, or getting a damn Quarter Pounder without pickles in the drive-thru of McDonald's... but it's still kinda hard.
But this is how we build resiliency - we do stuff that ain't easy. In the process, we develop the mental fortitude to keep going.
In the cop world, there's a lot of talk about "staying in the fight." It's usually framed as a strategy if, when protecting yourself or others, to never give up. Let's say you're responding to a school shooting and get in a gunfight with the shooter. And you get shot. The idea is to keep shooting back and not just lie down and die.
Unfortunately, a lot of cop training stops at just repeating the mantra "stay in the fight." There's not a lot of actual training that would develop the actual skills needed to get shot and keep fighting. The reality is simply instilling mantras is a piss-poor way to build real resiliency.
Back in the early days of running ultramarathons, I had a lot of mantras I told myself I would repeat when the race started to go bad and I wanted to quit. "I'd rather die than dropout of this race!" sounds great when sitting on the couch watching reruns of the Golden Girls. But at mile 60 of a 100 mile race, when you're sleep-deprived, your leg muscles stop working, and your ass cheeks are so chafed, they start fusing together?
No so much.
There's only one way to really build resiliency:
Make failure the goal.
Why Failure Works
We all have limits. We all have the point where conditions get so bad, we just quit. It's not uncommon for people to delude themselves into thinking they would never quit, but those people, without exception, have never actually tested themselves with real challenges. Ergo their cavalier attitude about their mythical resiliency.
The problem is we don't really develop resiliency until we push ourselves to the point of failure. Once we get there, THEN we can learn to push past the failure in the future.
In my early ultrarunning days, this came in the form of "DNFing" races (the grammatically incorrect usage of the acronym "did not finish.") I'd get to a point in long races where I could no longer muster the will to go on, which led me to stop running and drop out of the race. It took several races (and a lot of long runs) to learn physical and psychological tricks to keep pushing on after my body and brain told me to stop.
The first time I ever experienced this was a Hellish experience attempting to run the 2008 Burning River 100 miler in suburban Cleveland. I had never experienced such a degree of abject suffering before; it kind of caused me to really come to terms with our eventual mortality because I had serious internal deliberations that were attempting to rationalize death as a better option than continuing. If you're curious and like to read about suffering, you can read about it here. That experience changed everything for me, and really caused me to understand the value in embracing failure and voluntary suffering.
Anyway, pushing ourselves to failure looks like this:
Fail => Learn => Apply, Fail => Learn => Apply, etc.
The same thing happened when learning jiu jitsu, though it was a very different kind of failure. In a micro sense, I'd try a particular technique, fail, then learn from the failure. In the macro sense, when rolling (what we call "sparring" [or fighting, though it's not really fighting, per se] with another person in jiu jitsu) with my training partner, they'd "tap" me and I'd lose. I'd figure out why I got tapped. To facilitate this process, I made a habit of always choosing to roll with the best person in the class.
The strategy can be summed up like this:
Do hard stuff until you fail. Learn from the failure. Do hard stuff again, fail. Later, rinse, repeat.
So why doesn't everyone do this?
The Learning Killer
Putting yourself in a position to fail means you're rarely, if ever, going to win. And that's really hard on our ego. If we tie our self-worth to winning and losing, almost everyone is going to consciously or subconsciously choose easier competition. We might do it because we tie our self-worth to winning, we need the positive affirmations of being the "best", we might like the feeling of others being envious of us, or maybe we just don't like the sting of losing.
An over-sized ego often leads us to a grandiose sense of importance and a strong desire for recognition and positive affirmations from others. We begin to believe we deserve to win, and we begin to crave those around us feeding our need to feel important. Both of these drives lead us to avoid challenges that may make us look foolish.
Sometimes ego manifests as a fear of failure where we will only seek out easy challenges to assure we "win." Or we may engage in self-sabotaging behaviors that can later be used as excuses.
Sometimes this ego problem may come from what psychologists call an external locus of control... we believe our abilities are determined by factors outside our control, like innate genetic limitations, luck, fate, or the actions of the people around us.
Other times, ego may prevent us from experiencing humility. The more humble we are, the more open we become to learning and growth. This creates a weird sort of irony, where the people with the biggest ego tend to be the least-capable people because they refuse to risk learning through failure.
Whatever the reason, ego often keeps us from facing real challenges, which prevents us from learning to overcome. That prevents us from developing real resiliency.
My Own Strategy
My own personal strategy to overcome this is to re-frame how I feel about competition. When I lose, I frame it as an opportunity to learn how I can do better and carefully analyze what led to me losing. If I win? Well, the challenge was likely too easy.
It's the same deal with attempting really hard challenges or setting seemingly impossible goals. If it's too easy, there's little opportunity to really learn. Failing to do something really, really hard almost always results in better outcomes than choosing the easy route. If the challenge isn't really a challenge, or the goal is something you can do right now, today, what's the point?
So how do I apply this in a practical sense?
I embrace every opportunity for voluntary discomfort. Or, put another way, I seek out suffering. Now, it's important to understand this isn't masochism; I don't enjoy the suffering. It almost always sucks. I do it because it always provides opportunities to learn, and almost always provides an opportunity to learn to be more resilient.
In the next post, I'll expand on the idea of applying this to the cop world. Much like telling myself I wasn't going to quit running in that 2009 Burning River 100 miler, telling ourselves we're going to "stay in the fight" ain't enough. In the face of extreme suffering, we drastically underestimate the seductiveness of the Grip of Death. We think we know what extreme suffering feels like, but we have no idea. The only way to know is to experience. And the only way to resist the temptation to give in to the Grip of Death's seductiveness is to train to endure suffering by embracing voluntary discomfort.