When I see an opportunity arise that makes me feel a little scared—whether its an entirely new job, or a new project, or a stretch-assignment, or a risky business opportunity, or planning and preparing all of the food for one’s own 3-day long and 100+ guest wedding—I seriously consider saying YES. Not only have I grown as an individual and built character through the learnings that I’ve mined from tough experiences, but the story of my life comes into sharper resolution. Challenges create a stronger impression, I remember what I’ve done more clearly and my past experience becomes a better story to tell—and this is especially good if you have a bad memory (like me). So, I join a well established chorus with the call to take the leap into new challenges.
I believe that we all need intensities in our life and that we need to do our best to seek them out rather than hide from them. This disposition has a certain degree of acceptance of the inevitable in it because whether we like it or not, life will always give us memories that are more than impressions. Life will leave scars.
This disposition is more a question of doing our best to choose when and how life will scar us—so, instead of simply taking it on the chin, you point to your chin and say “hit me.” It’s a bit tragicomic in this regard. By accepting and actively seeking out challenges, we become less passive in our experience of hardship and come to see hardship as a painful but essential aspect of our life. Because we are taking a greater measure of responsibility for the hardship that befalls us by actively choosing new challenges, we trade fate for failure. And so we will invariably fail more—sometimes spectacularly. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is through our active efforts to challenge ourselves—through our resilience to failure—that we learn to take ourselves less seriously.
Last week while I was out for drinks with an old friend from my university days, it dawned on me: I have never felt as precarious as I did during the liminal period of time between the last few years of high school and the first few years of university. Questions like “What if I fail? What if I can’t do this? What if I end up on the street?” and so on, plagued me, and my friend echoed that he had similar worries. Why was this?
The looming threat throughout school and later, throughout one’s career, is this: until you’ve clocked your time with years of education and training, and then finally with years of work experience as a good employee, you are at risk of “amounting to nothing”. But to whom? The labour market of course. You can’t have a market for something unless you have some system to register the value of the widgets exchanged therein. And there is no better assurance of value than time logged in class and on the clock. School and career are stamps of approval, an assurance of quality, etc. With each unit of human capital that gets churned out, a signal is given to the labour market: “this person is good at these things, and bad at these things”; “this person is good at everything”; “this person dropped out”; etc. A side effect of this production of human capital is that school invariably teaches us to avoid failure. We are taught to take everything seriously. We are taught to win and succeed. We rank and compare rank. We compete against each other for medals and recognition. We are humiliated in front of our peers when we get an answer wrong. We are evaluated continuously and reminded of our numerical worth—our GPA—and how this number will determine our future. We are taught to pursue what we already believe ourselves to be good at.
So, this question of taking on new challenges is far beyond anything that school was able to support. The question of whether or not to focus on your strengths or weaknesses is a question for the schooled. In direct opposition to the worry of whether or not we will amount to anything, is a largely unexplored ethos of exploration, an active acceptance of hardship, and a playful and humorous wonderment for all there is to learn.