Challenge

Life, by its very nature, is challenging. Unfortunately, in our shame-based culture, we often receive the message that we should simply be able to get over all challenges and get on with life. If we don’t do this, there must be something wrong with us, we’re told—and we inevitably feel bad about ourselves.

Pain, suffering, and tragedy are all aspects of life. This shouldn’t be denied. On history’s grand scale, humans engage in war and cope with natural disasters. On the personal level, a drunk driver crashes into our car or we lose a loved one to cancer. On a less dramatic level, whether it is in our careers or our relationships, we realize our lives have not met all of our hopes and dreams.

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Life includes random events we can’t anticipate. The unknown is always present. There are no guarantees.

Given this reality, living is a journey of heroism. I don’t mean emulating the perfect hero or heroine in a blockbuster movie or the protagonist in a video game. Just facing the challenges that life gives you is heroic.

Jean Paul Sartre stated, “life begins on the other side of despair.” I believe he was recognizing the inherent challenges and difficulties of being human. Moving through these inherent challenges and difficulties is part of life’s heroic journey. To move through them, we need to value what taking this journey requires.

Being heroic means…

  • Not tearing yourself down. It’s appreciating that life isn’t always smooth and easy, and acknowledging yourself for showing up. Realize that you are here, doing what you can, the best that you can, at this moment.
  • Embracing your vulnerability. By exploring your vulnerability, you can be open to the solutions that arise from it. This is the antidote to shaming yourself when you are vulnerable and feel you should not be.
  • Taking some risks in your life, with the understanding that you don’t know for certain what will be set in motion. You can feel good that you took the risk, even if it may not turn out exactly the way you imagined.
  • Forgiving yourself for missteps that you make, and learning from them so you don’t have to repeat them. And, if you do repeat them, forgiving yourself again and continuing to learn.
  • Cultivating an attitude of compassion towards yourself. By cultivating this attitude, you no longer suffocate yourself throughshame. A positive moment in your life or a clear direction for your next step can then emerge.

By being present with the challenges of life and remembering that heroism exists in daily living, you can move into the depth of who you are. From that depth, you can engage with your life’s challenges in a full and vital way.

Happiness is circular. Happy people have happy habits, which in turn, makes them happier. Here’s a list of habits that have a high chance of giving you a happiness boost.

  1. Savor the moment.Look around yourenvironment and take note of one thing that you often take for granted. Bring mindful attention and awareness to it. Try to engage all your senses. Notice the positive feelings and associations that go with it. Try to hold onto this awareness for 15-20 seconds or so, to let it really sink in.
  2. Practice non-judgmental awareness of yourself and others.Most people, including you, are doing the best they can with the resources they have in any particular moment. No one wakes up and says, “I think I’ll screw up my life today.” Give yourself, and others, a break.

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  1. Cultivate realistic thinking.You don’t necessarily have to be apositive thinker. Sometimes healthy skepticism is appropriate. Try to be balanced in your thinking, though: For example, what is the evidence for (insert worrisome thought or idea)? What are the implications? How likely is it to happen? What coping skills do you have in place if the worst were to happen?
  2. Connect with others.We are inherently social and have a fundamental need for belonging. Having social support is a buffer in times ofstress. Connecting with others can also help put problems in perspective; others can give you useful feedback.
  3. Resolve conflicts proactively.Treat emotional issues as temporary and solvable. Useassertiveness skills. Realize you can be kind without having people walk all over you.
  4. Develop good self-care practices.Exercise, eat healthy most of the time, get enoughsleep, be kind to yourself, and develop good boundaries. Here’s a list of 80+ self-care ideas. Do one today.
  5. Sharegratitudeand love. Express gratitude to those who have made a difference in your life. Send a card. Write a letter. Visit in person.
  6. Focus on the good.Write down three good things that happen each day. Take pictures. Journal. Keep scrapbooks (they don’t have to be fancy). This helps reorient our brains to the fact that things are actually going pretty well. Dr. Rick Hanson, author of the new book,Hardwiring Happiness, has popularized this phrase—”focus on the good.”
  7. Live like you’re on vacation.What makes the time we spend on vacation better than the time we spend at home? We are open to new experiences. We are trying novel things. At home there are plenty of things we could be doing that would be novel and/or fun, but there’s no urgency. Plan a time to be a tourist in your own town.
  8. Fake it.Studies show that if your face is in a smiling position (such as holding a pen long-ways in your mouth), it sends signals to yourbrainthat you are happy. If you don’t want to put a pen in your mouth, simply focus on turning up the corners of your mouth ever so slightly. Imagine that even your eyes are smiling.
  9. Have fun andlaugh.Laughter has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce certain stress hormones, defend against respiratory infections, increase memory and learning, improve alertness, and increase creativity. (Enjoy these quotes about laughter.)
  10. Spend money.Money can buy (some) happiness, but only if you spend it on the right things, like experiences or other people. No one ever said on his or her deathbed, “I wish I’d bought morestuff.”
  11. Simplify.Too many things, too many activities, too many choices—really too much ofanything—can cause stress and decrease happiness. Here’s a great website to give you some ideas on simplifying.
  12. Curtail Comparisons.Remember that weall have joys and sorrows. Too often we’re comparing how we feel on the inside to how someone else looks on the outside.
  13. Live an authentic and meaningful life.Be true to yourself and live in line with your values. Ask yourself, What do I want in life? What small steps can I take to move in that direction?

Which do you think is more predictive of success, innate ability or hard work? Do you think anyone can rise up to meet a challenge with enough effort, or are some people just more intelligent and able than others?

It seems like there should be a true answer to these questions, but according to Stanford University psychologist andmotivation researcher Carol Dweck, the truth is all in your head. Dweck isn’t interested in what exactly intelligence is; she’s interested in what you think it is, and the long term impact of those beliefs. One can divide these believes into two camps:

  • Entity theorists. Some people believe that intelligence is an unchangeable, fixed trait. If you are an entity theorist, you think of intelligence as a “thing” that you can have a lot or a little of. Entity theorists would say that some people are just more intelligent than others.
  • Incremental theorists. Some people believe that intelligence is amalleable quality that can developed. If you are more of an incremental theorist, you think of intelligence more as a muscle that can get stronger with effort. Incremental theorists would say that anyone can achieve if they work hard at it.

The reality is that these beliefs exist on a continuum: You may be a pure entity theorist, a pure incremental theorist, or fall somewhere in between. For example, a lot of people might endorse the idea that some people are more intelligent than others, but also believe that, with hard work, people can reach their peak intelligence.

Why does it matter what we believe?

It turns out that the views you have about intelligence can help or hinder your motivation and achievement. People who more strongly endorse entity beliefs are more likely to give up after failure. If intelligence is fixed, this thinking goes, and you are performing poorly, obviously you just aren’t that smart, so why keep trying? On the other hand, endorsingincremental beliefs is associated with viewing poor performance as achallenge and seeking improvement through hard work.

Your beliefs might also affect the types of activities you engage in:

  • For entity theorists, performance is diagnostic of an innate intelligence, so they are more likely to avoid difficult and challenging tasks in case they perform poorly.
  • For incremental theorists, difficult and challenging tasks are a chance to grow and improve, so they will be more likely to take on such tasks on and not worry about whether they will perform well.

Do our beliefs about intelligence predict our achievement outcomes? Not only do these different theories influence people’s motivations, they actually affect achievement outcomes. Students who endorse more incremental beliefs earn higher grades and receive better scores on achievement tests. This is true whether you measure naturally occurring beliefs or use an incremental theory intervention. These beliefs have long term effects: 7th graders who believed that intelligence was malleable experienced an upward trend in grades over two years of junior high, whereas the belief that intelligence is fixed was associated with a flat trajectory.

It’s time to change your beliefs about intelligence. Do you believe you aren’t smart enough to try something challenging? If so, try changing those beliefs. The experimental evidence suggests that our beliefs about intelligence are, themselves, malleable. Regardless what beliefs you currently hold, it’s not too late to start approaching challenges with the belief that hard work and effort pay off.

And if you have kids, try to raise them to be incremental theorists: When they come home from school with a big smile because they got a good grade, tell them “I knew you could do it, you worked so hard!” not, “I knew you could do it, you’re so smart!” And if you catch them saying they aren’t smart enough, tell them that the old adage is true—hard work does pay off.

“Worrying,” quipped Mark Twain, “is like paying a debt you don’t owe.” Worry features in many people’s lives. In mild form, occasional worry may serve a helpful coping function, getting us to think and plan ahead. At higher volume and frequency, worry can become annoying and distracting, and may undermine our productivityconcentration, and mood. At extremely high levels, chronic worry can derail your life. Such worry also constitutes the central symptom of a common psychological disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

GAD runs in families and appears to have a substantial genetic component. It is often diagnosed together with depression and other anxiety disorders. This is why some psychologists believe it represents an underlying constitutional vulnerability, a general “anxious apprehension” process that may at times manifest itself through different specific fears, such as fears of certain objects (specific phobia), of social judgment (social phobia), of physiological arousal symptoms (panic disorder), or of troubling thoughts and images (OCD).

Worry is a devious foe for several reasons. First, people who worry a lot most often see their worries come to naught. In other words, most imagined catastrophic scenarios don’t actually materialize. One would think that a system (worry) that constantly fails at its job (predicting the future) would be abandoned. Instead, the opposite usually happens. This is because our brains tend to confuse correlation with causation. In this case, since worry is associated with things turning out OK, worriers begin to believe that it is the worry what made things turn out OK—which is in fact false; research shows that worry hinders rather than facilitates effective problem solving. Hence, worriers tend to increase their worrying in response to their failed predictions of catastrophe. Over time, worry morphs from a habit into a requirement born of superstition.

In addition, research has suggested that although worry is associated with health and coping problems in the long term, it tends to decrease physiological (fight-or-flight) arousal in the short term. In this way, worrying works somewhat like an addictive drug—it provides short termstress relief through avoidance and is hence experienced as rewarding. Since our brain is wired to privilege short term rewards, a worry cycle is easily established that is as difficult to break as drug addiction. Like a drug, worry itself over time becomes a bigger problem than whatever concerns it ostensibly addresses.

Another difficulty is that for those who have developed the habit of continual worry, the experience of not worrying is novel and disconcerting. As such, it becomes a source of worry in itself: “Why am I not worried? Something must be wrong with me!” Old habits die hard, and even after they die, they often hang around as scary ghosts.

Still, when worry becomes chronic, frightening, and debilitating we may be moved to do something about it. In the past, thought suppression techniques were advanced as one solution. The evidence, however, suggests that thought suppression is an ineffective way to deal with constant worry, and may have the ironic effect of magnifying worry and its influence. Instead of suppressing, denying, or trying to avoid those nagging thoughts, it is more useful to engage them in conversation, where they may be more closely examined in the light of real world evidence.

In this context, research by David Barlow and others has identified two main cognitive distortions that characterize worry. First, worry tends to involve an “overestimation bias,” whereby the odds of the worried-about scenario materializing are invariably imagined to be high. In other words, the “voice of worry” ignores actual probabilities and always predicts imminence. Second, worry involves a “catastrophizing bias,” whereby the consequences of the worried-about scenario are imagined to be negative in the extreme. The voice of worry ignores gradations and always predicts the absolute worst.

While worried-about scenarios tend to appear in our minds as both imminent and extremely bad, in real life not all scenarios are bad, and even bad scenarios are not always imminent and/or extreme. This distinction matters, because living necessarily requires taking on low probability risk, every single day. For example, when you step into the shower in the morning, you may slip and break your neck. But most people still take on the risk. Why? Because the odds of it actually happening are low. Accurately calculating whether the odds of something happening are high or low is crucial to our daily decision-making. In general, low-probability risk scenarios are disregarded so that we can go about our daily business. High-probability risk scenarios may be defended against, or avoided.

Similarly, not all negative eventualities in life are extreme. In fact, extreme catastrophes are rare. (If they were common, then they would not in all likelihood be considered extreme.) An event’s level of impact makes a difference in the real world—getting hit by a bullet is different from being hit by a paint ball.

Given the distorted tendency of the voice of worry to make all risks appear likely and catastrophic, and given the real life importance of estimating the actual likelihood and severity of risks, the internal conversation regarding worry should include two main questions:

  1. How likely is it, really? This question addresses the error of overestimation. An honest consideration of the actual odds that the negative scenario will materialize will help us distinguish justified, useful concern (high odds) from unjustified, useless worry (low odds).
  2. How bad is it, really? This question addresses the error of catastrophizing. It helps us consider the evidence in distinguishing the extreme, real threat (a bullet) from the non-extreme, benign threat (a paint ball).

Now, these two questions, considered in tandem, may be represented in a 2 x 2 matrix of the kind psychologists love to draw:

As seen in the table, three of the four cells constitute good news. Specifically, an event that is imminent but mundane (2) need not be terribly bothersome. Such events are not the end of the world; they are just the world. An event that is catastrophic but unlikely (3) may also be disregarded—as such events must be in the course of pursuing our most basic daily tasks, unless we’re willing to go without bathing forever. And clearly, an unlikely mundane event (4) is of no concern at all. Once your worries are fleshed out and evaluated, it becomes clear that, contrary to the distortions inherent in the voice of worry, most high likelihood events are not terrible, and most terrible events are not likely.

Now, it is important to emphasize that in engaging the inner conversation with our voice of worry, we are not looking to counter negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Instead, we are looking to counter inaccurate thoughts with accurate thoughts; to replace lies with truths. Therefore, we must accept the possibility that once in a long while we will face an imminent and catastrophic event (1). That’s life. But recognizing that life is fragile and fleeting is, if anything, a very good reason to forsake needless worrying and start living.

To paraphrase Charles Darwin, anyone who dares to waste one hour of time worrying has not discovered the value of life.

Trajectory

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

People struggle when talking about career goals further down the road, and they often have not considered how their current job will prepare them for the next one, and the next one, and so on.

In addition to preparing for today and tomorrow, you must learn to prepare yourself for what comes after what’s next. You can think of your growth around what is Now, Next, and Then in your career so that you can amass the right portfolio of experience to prepare you for each step. Phrases such as “career goals” and “career path” were familiar to most people but did little to resonate with them or help them plan. Trajectory will enable you to throw those generic ideas out the window and instead focus on strategies that are more intuitively concrete and, more important, that you can manage.

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