2013-05-01

Experience the challenge

I sometimes hear people remark at some of my adventures saying, "I could never do that." However, it's said that one person's heaven is another person's hell. I think every individual faces different challenges throughout life, as unique as the individual encountering them. In fact, we frequently see that not everyone considers the same things a "challenge". Afterall, what is a "challenge" really?

The word challenge carries many connotations. It could mean a call to action, a defiant stance, or even an expressed disagreement. However, there is another definition of the word "challenge" which stands out among the rest:
challenge - A test of one's abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking.
That definition1 reveals the internal struggle faced during a "challenge", whereas the others address only the external conflict. I think every challenge contains a component of that internal struggle, demanding some greater effort than is natural.

I once heard a climbing instructor illustrate the concept of challenge in a unique way. He drew two large concentric circles on the ground. Standing at the center of the circles, he explained that within the smaller circle was the "comfort zone"; a mind-set in which we feel safe and relaxed. He then stepped out of the smaller circle and into the next larger one. He pointed to the line of the outer circle and said that it represented the limits of safety, beyond that outer circle was the "danger zone". He then pointed to where he stood, within that outer circle, advising that he wanted the climbers mind-sets to stay there that day: outside their comfort zone, but within the realm of safety.

His demonstration touches on concepts studied in behavioral psychology. The "comfort zone" being a state in which a person is "anxiety-neutral". The "danger zone" being a state in which a person is reckless, where they are certain to injure themselves physically, mentally, or emotionally. It should be noted that dwelling, for a time, in the area between the two can be surprisingly advantageous.

In performance management studies, the zone between comfort and danger is called the "optimal performance zone". Beyond the comfort zone, the body's natural stress response enables a heightened level of concentration and focus. If the stress level is too high, a person has entered the danger zone and performance worsens and judgement is impaired. "The objective of the trainer or manager is to cause the person to enter the optimum performance zone for a sufficient period of time so that new skills and performance can be achieved and become embedded."2

So, a challenge can be sighted as anything which triggers a "stress response". Many people, such as myself, love the adrenaline rush of something new and exciting which pushes the body's physical limits. However, I don't consider those experiences my challenges. You see, I don't fear those experiences, I crave them and find comfort in them. Climbing a mountain, jumping out of a plane, camping in subzero weather; I find those experiences calming and familiar. I don't feel tested by them, I feel at ease. I've come to recognize that my challenges are internal.

The struggles I face come from within. Maintaining a healthy life-balance, cultivating friendships (not just acquaintanceship), silencing my self-doubt, and trusting the support of others when I feel vulnerable. It's extremely difficult for me to even list some of those points. For some, my challenges might seem small and simple, but the stress is very real for me and the fear can be undeniable. The good news is that I recognize that those struggles as my challenges.

For some time now, as has been noted in other articles, I have been focusing my energy on stepping out of my comfort zone and experiencing the challenges I encounter within. To be honest, it has not been an easy process. Were it easy, it would mean that I wasn't in that "optimal performance zone" of personal change and internal balance. So, when someone comments with amazement on something I do, I thank them and take a moment to compliment them on the things they do which I admire and find challenging.

We each have things which test our abilities and push us beyond the limits of our comfort. What I find comfortable may be unnerving for others. When I sense myself internally leaving my comfort zone, I consciously make an effort to evaluate what is triggering my stress and work through my fear. Regularly recognizing my challenges and stepping out of my comfort zone has become a significant "centering" exercise. It is also important to know and become with familiar with the limits of your zones.

During a avalanche awareness and training course, my instructor warned us that "problems occur when desire overcomes discretion". He was referring to the reduction in clear thinking when we become too focused on a specific goal or reward. We begin to ignore warning signs that we would otherwise recognize, if we kept a clear head. That's a serious problem, especially in life-threatening situation; that is when we have entered the danger zone. It's important to carefully evaluate the limits of a situation and define where the optimal performance zone ends and the danger zone begins.

While it's true that life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away, it's equally paramount to find a balance that allows you to keep breathing. Become aware of your challenges, embrace them as an opportunity to improve. Admire the heroes who find comfort facing the things you find difficult, show gratitude and offer encouragement to those who fear what you face. Remember, every person is a hero for facing the challenges they encounter in life.


1 Challenge - The Free Dictionary
2 "Comfort Zone" - Wikipedia
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