Modern society is weak. We get annoyed with rain and don’t want to step into it without an umbrella as if it could dissolve us. We are annoyed when we don’t get regular meals even though we never get hungry. We are scared of spending a night in a tent as it would be uncomfortable. We get depressed when we don’t get promoted fast enough. We get angry when a plane is late.
We are weak, and we have a very low tolerance for things to go wrong. How can someone like that cope with real challenges? How can someone like that live a satisfactory and happy life?
Think a bit about your behavior. How do you react when you face even little adversity, and what things are you unwilling or unable to endure? Chances are, that same as the rest of us, you are weak! You complain a lot. You feel like a victim of life’s circumstances. You won’t take any risks. You don’t seek discomfort. You are just somehow comfortable where you are even though you are at the same time not particularly happy to be there.
As Joe De Sena writes in The Spartan Way, humans need challenges to thrive, grow, and accomplish significant feats. The ancient Spartans built one of the first democracies and one of the greatest militaries on a foundation of a rigorous training program and a strict moral code designed to develop endurance. There are things to be learned there if you want to become stronger and enjoy life to the fullest.
The only way to get your life under control and to get stronger is to face challenges and even seek them out. You can’t hide from the inescapable adversity the life brings. You can’t keep looking for shortcuts because they are more comfortable. You need to summon the courage and face life head-on.
Joe De Sena talks about these core virtues that you need to develop to be a strong, resilient person who can deal with adversities:
- Self-awareness – you need to understand who you are and what is important to you otherwise you will be continuously confused about your priorities
- Commitment – when you commit to something you stick with it till the end which gives you an edge over others who don’t have that discipline
- Passion – you need to learn to be passionate about your life and what you do as that is the only way to get great at anything
- Discipline – create a set of rules and stick with them as only by having good routines you can keep at things even when they are no fun
- Prioritization – always deal with important things first that way you can never make an excuse to yourself that there was no time
- Grit – get out of your comfort zone and persevere as only by sticking with things at their worst you build a true strength
- Courage – stay focused and work relentlessly through resistance and failure
- Optimism – see the world around you the way you want it to be
- Integrity – be honest not only with others but also with yourself
- Wholeness – live a complete and balanced life you want
These are the rules to live by. I’m not going to go through all of them but let me tackle those specifically focused on building resilience and inner strength.
Learn to be enthusiastic as opposed to apathetic. Apathy is energy draining, it is not caring, it is an indifferent and passive approach to life. Enthusiasm is a proactive way to deal with life’s challenges. It keeps you energized and optimistic. And both are easy to spread.
If you are around positive and enthusiastic people, you will feel yourself to get more energy. If you are around downers who show apathy and negativism, you may want to kill yourself within a day. Make sure you keep the company of people who will provide fuel so you can drive to your goals.
How do you learn a positivity and enthusiasm? Learn to say “yes” to new things and new challenges. Learn to smile a lot even without a strong reason as just the act of smiling that moves your facial muscles will have the side effect of you actually feeling better.
Learn to focus on the bright side of life. We get more of the things we focus on. That’s how our brain works. If you focus on good things, that will cause you to see them all around you, and it will create a virtuous cycle of you being more positive and optimistic and seeing more of good around you. Life will feel good.
Commit to what is important
I love seeing people around me grow and becoming better at their jobs and better human beings. I like to see the unleashed potential. And it makes me sad and sometimes even angry to see people who just give up on life and settle in their comfort zones. They are so addicted to their status quo, so afraid to make a change, so focused on pursuit pleasures over meaningful life, so confused and lost on their purpose in this world.
The real test of your commitment comes when you face an obstacle, even a small one. Let’s say you decided to improve your health by running. You commit to yourself that every morning before breakfast you go for a short run. You do it once, twice, and then on the third day you wake up, and it is raining. What do you do? You go for a run. If not, if you make an excuse, you just made your first step to failing miserably. If you compromise once, you will easily compromise again and again.
Why do people quit strenuous activities before they achieve their goal? In most situation, it is because they don’t care enough about the goal and so they gave themselves permission to fail. The reasoning goes along the lines of, “well, at least I tried,” or “I did my best, so I can quit now.” If you start with a mindset that failure is not an option, you are more likely to persevere until the end.
To help with the commitment, you may want to make a public promise. The fear of embarrassment of not living up to that promise may provide an additional push, so you keep going. Presenting your views and goals to others makes you more likely to stick with them.
Just make sure you don’t overdo it. As with everything if you spend too much time talking about how you plan to climb a mountain, you may get back the respect and accolades as someone who already reached the peak, so you may decide that it is all the endorphins you need and you don’t even start the climb.
Before you state your goal publicly, make sure it is the right goal, a goal you genuinely care about and where you ideally took the first step of accomplishing.
Focus and execute
Psychologists Daniel T. Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth ran a study to analyze what people feel and think during the day as they go through their lives. They discovered that 46.9% spend their days thinking about other stuff than what they were doing.
Just imagine, we spend half of our waking moments not being present at the moment, not focusing on the task at hand, not focusing on what is essential, not living our lives to the fullest. We let our minds wander, and that makes us unhappy since we are thinking about what is not happening, instead of focusing on what is happening.
Angela Duckworth in her book Grit defines grit as passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. She claims that grit consists of several ingredients: passion, practice, purpose, hope. The first three are self-explanatory, the last one, hope, comes from the enthusiasm and optimism. It is the positive outlook on life that gives you hope.
If you are not resilient enough yet, you get anxious easily, you overthink and worry too much just get busy. The best way to stop your anxiety and mind wandering is to spring into action and start producing. Your focus will shift, and you won’t have time to worry.
Stop lying to yourself
In 1957, Leon Festinger of Stanford University came up with a theory of cognitive dissonance. He claimed that we often interpret what we believe we know and what we do to fit with what we think about ourselves and the world around us. This is a way our brain makes us comfortable and protects us from getting too depressed.
It is the rationalization we are using every day to commit small sins even though we sort of know that we are doing something we shouldn’t have. “But why I shouldn’t do it when everyone does it?” “One cigarette a day doesn’t kill me.” “I want to be healthy, and I just read an article that a glass of beer provides lots of vitamins, so it is healthy to drink beer, and I sort of ignore any research that says that alcohol is not healthy.”
Do you want to get physically stronger? You need to regularly go to the gym and exercise your muscles. Do you want to get bigger self-control and discipline? You have to exercise it periodically by resisting temptations and by following on your commitments.
Just by the act of getting out of the bed and into the rain for your daily run, you make it more likely to do the same tomorrow and the day after. By delaying the gratification of cushiony bed and getting uncomfortable, you eventually achieve your goal of being healthy and able to run long distances which will bring much more satisfaction as that is something you really want and that is important to you.
As a side effect, you got more resilient and more likely to achieve also other things in your life. You built your self-control and discipline muscles.
Ability to delay gratification is a potent tool. It leads to more patience, more perseverance, willingness to do what others don’t, and it is a substantial competitive advantage in the game of life.
Routinize your life
Decision making is a somewhat tricky endeavor. We go through our lives making tons of small decisions every single day. Can I cross the street? What should I get for lunch? What should I wear? Should I buy a new car? Should I stop by a colleague’s desk and say hello? The more decisions you make and the more difficult they are, the less able you are to make them and to make the right ones.
Simplify it. Routinize your life as much as possible to remove tedious small decisions, so you have enough decision-making energy for the crucial ones. Have some guidelines on how to make decisions. Especially those related to how you spend your time.
For any activity, you plan to do you should ask yourself whether it gets you closer to your goal or not. If not, don’t do it. If it does help you to reach your goal, go for it. This way the decisions are made sort of automatically without you trying too hard.
Getting a routine to your life will build habits. Habits are good as they help you to persevere. But habits can also be dangerous when they distract you from your goals.
Identifying what distracting habits you have is as important to build a new one. The way to get rid of bad habits is to find the triggers that cause them and then replace your reaction to the trigger by a new habit.
Let’s say you get home, and the first steps lead you to the kitchen to grab a beer. But you know that getting that beer will lead to more beers, and you really want to get healthier, and your plan was to go for a run. Do two things.
First remove the beer from the fridge and hopefully from your house. You want the environment to work for you not against you.
Second, when you get the trigger of getting home to have an apple waiting for you next to the door, so you grab it automatically and don’t go to the kitchen for unhealthy snacks at all.
Suffer, on purpose
Get out of your comfort zone and suffer a bit every now and then. Consider stoicism, a philosophy that embraces hardship. The Stoics practiced hardship and poverty to value what they’ve got.
If you feel you are poor, try to live on the street for a week without bringing any money with you. I guarantee you that when you get back to your rented apartment, you won’t feel that poor anymore. You will be happy you’ve got a bed, a hot shower, and a proper meal.
Changing the frame of reference is a powerful way to get more grounded and satisfied with your life even though the life itself doesn’t change at all. It is all in your head.
I love to travel to other countries and especially to countries and cultures that are significantly different from my own. Often when I come back home, I’m really grateful for the luxury of living in central Europe. Things like having a place on my own, to be able to eat properly or to have a drinking tap water are huge luxuries that not that many people on this planet have. Be grateful.
Go beyond your limits
Alex Hutchinson in his book Endure talks about the limits of human performance. He describes endurance as “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” This definition captures two aspects of reaching your limits. The physical and the psychological.
How do you condition yourself to endure more than you think is possible? At the point of perceived limits you can try the techniques, Hutchinson describes with 5Rs (Recognize, Refuse, Relax, Reframe, and Resume).
Recognize you reached your limit, Refuse to accept it, Relax your mind and body, Reframe how you feel and what you think and Resume the activity. Keep going beyond what you felt was possible for you to do.
By pushing yourself beyond your psychological boundaries, you will move these boundaries for the future, and you will also train your physical side to get stronger and endure more the next time.
Putting it all together
I have touched just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other things that impact our satisfaction with life and our happiness. Shedding the weakness brought up by modern society and getting stronger and more resilient is just the first step. But it is an important one.
Resilient people don’t complain about their life circumstances, but they go and change them. Resilient people don’t panic easily and are not derailed by suffering. They endure, they embrace the pain and grow stronger.
Modern psychologists may disagree and say that people who emerge from catastrophic events are not strong because of the events, but they were strong to start with. I would still finish with a quote by a German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Don’t shy away from difficult challenges and a bit of suffering. Go out and have your daily run in heavy rain.
What are your thoughts? How do you build resilience? Is suffering important for satisfactory and happy life?
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