The Childlike Love of Challenge
How fast can you run?
When did you last ask a friend:
“Wanna see how fast I can run?”
Or hold your breath until you’re gasping for air? Or skip a night of sleep without caffeine or pharmaceuticals? Or balance on one foot on a rock with your tongue slightly out the corner of your mouth as you try to calculate whether or not you have sufficient calf explosiveness to launch onto the next rock?
As kids, we were drawn to these kinds of challenges. We’d make up random dumb ones if left alone with minimal stimulation. They were part of how we played. They were part of how we figured out our limits in the world.
But then, the challenge instinct fades. Most adults do not regularly challenge themselves. And when they do, it isn’t for the joy of the challenge itself, it’s for some “productive” end like losing weight or making more money. They are not running until they collapse for the sake of it. They’re running for exactly three miles so that next week they can up it to four miles.
It’s tempting to say that it’s good to have a reasonable sense of your abilities. But if a one-year-old stuck to what they knew they could do, they would never walk.
What if life-changing breakthroughs are lurking behind the goals we’re too afraid to chase?
Kids are natural-born challenge seekers but end up lame by adulthood. What goes wrong? Most parents are not constantly challenging themselves, so they set a poor example. If you don’t see people enjoying pushing themselves, you might not be motivated to keep doing it, even if you enjoy it.
And on the school side, education isn’t focused on self-discovery. It’s focused on regurgitating answers to problems with known solutions. It’s easy to grade kids on their ability to solve math problems. It’s not easy to grade them on their ability to push themselves.1
But it is worth rediscovering that childlike love of challenge. It is incredibly satisfying to do something you didn’t know you could do. The joy of sitting in the sauna a few minutes past when you started seeing spots2 and realizing you did not, in fact, die, is a wonderful internally generated euphoria that’s only rivaled by the most aggressive damage to your serotonin receptors or nasal cavity.
The more challenges you face, feeling the joy of accomplishment and building your repertoire of self-knowledge, the more you can rekindle that childlike love of challenge. A challenge can be exciting, motivating, and fun to figure out (though certainly very type 2 fun). You can start to look forward to them. Challenges are cool. What do you call the kid who doesn’t want to compete to see how long they can sit in the cold plunge?3
And the more of those challenges you conquer, the more you have in your back pocket to remind yourself of what you’re capable of. One five-day fast, and you never worry about missing a meal again.
You don’t have to start with anything big. Find ways to add little challenges to your life and see how they make you feel. Get in the ice bath. Sign up for a 10k. Don’t wear a jacket. Maybe you barely learned to walk at all.
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For legal reasons, I should probably say that I’m not a doctor or medical professional and am not advising you to do this. But you know what I’m really thinking.
You don’t wanna be a LOSER, do you?