Eleanor Roosevelt once said:
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
I had heard this quote before, thinking it made perfect sense. But the thought of actually taking action never crossed my mind until this past January.
I was feeling stuck despite the fact that on paper, life was great. I had recently moved into a guest house that had everything I wanted. I had finally completed furnishing the space; the last boxes unpacked. I was promoted at work. Things were good.
Yet I felt like I was floating through life. Like it was happening to me.
In early January, a conversation with a friend about Roosevelt’s quote planted the seed: in February, I would embark on a month-long quest to do something every day that scared me. Something that made me uncomfortable in some way.
I had a couple of ideas for these challenges and opted to reached out to my readers for more suggestions. And they delivered. Over eighty ideas were submitted, ranging from silly to nearly-terrifying. I sorted and ranked ideas based first on level of discomfort, and then by level of time commitment (Could it be done any time, like talking to strangers? Or would it require planning, like painting a canvas?).
From there, I roughly mapped out the month, day-by-day.
So, how did it go?
Throughout the month I posted weekly updates. The feedback I received was humbling and motivating. These updates, I admit, were also selective. I only chose to write about challenges with entertainment value. On only one occasion I wrote about a “failure,” where I attempted a challenge but did not complete it.
The truth is, there were quite a few of these “failures.” Pushing myself every single day to get out of my comfort zone became exhausting and sometimes, I just didn’t feel like doing it.
Several days went by when I didn’t complete a single one.
Having said that, I anticipated this might happen. There were a couple of days when I did multiple challenges. In the 28 days of February, I completed 31 challenges. The schedule also changed quite bit throughout the month.
I learned a couple of valuable lessons through this experiment:
Most discomfort comes from the ego
Every time I felt resistance to a challenge, either before or while completing it, it came from my ego. Deep down, it came from a fear of making a fool of myself. Of looking stupid. Of being misunderstood. These are feelings the ego hates. In every instance my ego was shouting, “Run away! You’ll be safer if you do!” Or, it was making excuses for why not to do the challenge. This sentiment comes from a good place, of course — of wanting to protect oneself. But that’s not a path to growth.
Separating you from your ego can be useful, particularly in instances of discomfort. Are the thoughts you’re having something you believe? Or something your ego believes?
Anticipation > actuality
When diving into discomfort, the anticipation was always worse. Always. Every time. I learned this early on and tried to avoid thinking about challenges until the very last moment — but even then there was some anticipation.
This is a useful tip for the next time you try something uncomfortable. Don’t think about it. Just do it.
Create opportunities, don’t wait for them
I default to waiting for opportunities, then maybe taking them. An example came early, on Day 2, when I chatted with a woman I found attractive. We made eye contact and smiled at each other well before I built up the courage to talk to her. That initial, non-verbal contact opened the door to a conversation. Had it not happened, I might not have spoken to her.
There are opportunities every single day to connect with others: in line at the grocery store, in the elevator, at the coffee shop. It takes one person to take the leap.
Incompetence = growth
When we are young, we are used to feeling incompetent. We learn sports, music, and mathematics, sometimes feeling ignorant along the way. When we grow up, we become more competent at various skills we’ve acquired and oftentimes forget what it’s like to learn.
Growth cannot happen without incompetence. When I took a hip-hop dance class last month, I felt like a klutz. When I went bouldering with a few friends, I felt entirely inept. This discomfort is normal.
We tend to think that “incompetence = bad.” Re-associating this feeling with “good” is a useful way to become better at personal growth.
Throughout the month I read a couple of books, including Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the leading researcher on the experience of “flow.”
The passage below seems like a perfect place to end this piece. When I first read it, it provided validation for this crazy month-long experiment. Throughout history, our species has engaged in challenging activity to find meaning and purpose in life.
My month of February was simply a reminder of this fact.
The Shushwap region [of British Columbia] was and is considered by the Indian people to be a rich place: rich in salmon and game, rich in below-ground food resources such as tubers and roots — a plentiful land. In this region, the people would live in permanent village sites and exploit the environs for needed resources. They had elaborate technologies for very effectively using the resources of the environment, and perceived their lives as being good and rich.
Yet, the elders said, at times the world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning. So the elders, in their wisdom, would decide that the entire village should move, those moves occurring every 25 to 30 years. The entire population would move to a different part of the Shushwap land and there, they found challenge. There were new streams to figure out, new game trails to learn, new areas where the balsamroot would be plentiful.
Now life would regain its meaning and be worth living.