Challenge is the pathway to engagement and progress in our lives. But not all challenges are created equal. Some challenges make us feel alive, engaged, connected, and fulfilled. Others simply overwhelm us. Knowing the difference as you set bigger and bolder challenges for yourself is critical to your sanity, success, and satisfaction.
How do you choose “good” challenges? It helps to know that the kind of challenges that bring full engagement and fulfillment in our lives have five things in common:
First, they demand singularity of focus, meaning they are mighty enough activities that they require our full and undivided attention and concentration in the moment. These challenges, then, are not insignificant, nor do they allow multitasking. They absorb us because they engage both our mental and our physical presence. Painting a picture, teaching your kids an activity, designing a website, creating or giving a presentation--all are examples of efforts that require you to focus. To inspire a singularity of focus, a challenge must be important to you and it must be something you feel you should do now in this moment. If it’s trivial or not time-bound, you won’t engage. So in selecting your next challenge in life, choose one that is meaningful and will demand your complete concentration.
Second, great challenges stretch our efforts and capabilities, demanding slightly more than the best of our skills and strengths. They are just over and above our current abilities, so they require us to engage fully and grow. The secret here is to select challenges that extend just beyond your comfort zones. Knowing this secret explains why so many of us have become fascinated with video games. Have you ever played a video game that didn’t have escalating levels of difficulty? Well, life can feel like play, too, when we purposefully engage in activities that demand we test and develop our skills. If you’re a good public speaker who always uses notes, choosing to go without notes in your next presentation will stretch you. If you’re a good racquetball player, playing a competitor who is better than you will demand more of you. If you’re an executive, take on a project that’s slightly over your head. You needn’t decide to skip from level one of difficulty to level 10--that just causes you to feel overwhelmed. Instead, approach your next challenge as an opportunity to go from level one to level two or three, and you’ll meet the criteria for a satisfying challenge.
Third is the ability to score performance. This means that you have the opportunity to know how you’re doing--either to self-assess your progress or to get outside feedback. Running often becomes a more satisfying experience when we can measure how fast and far we’ve gone. Presentations and vocal performances are more fulfilling if we can see the audience’s faces and reactions to our voice. Dieting is more engaging when we can stand on the scales and see how we’re doing. While all this sounds intuitive, the surprising fact is that few people purposely build progress checks into their challenges. They simply get inspired, start out, and then give up when they no longer “feel like” continuing. But a hit of motivation, either in seeing results or in getting redirected, often happens at the checkpoints in any endeavor. So craft your next challenge with the intention of assessing your progress along the way.
Fourth, satisfying challenges allow for a sense of completion. People can run a marathon because they know that their challenge has a finish line. Executives who work around the clock, fully engaged in a project, do so because they have a deadline to hit that they believe matters to their overall challenge of contributing fully and rising to the top. These examples illustrate that having a few finish lines in mind and the belief in a payoff are incredibly important in enduring the stretch of any challenge. This concept becomes even more important as we take on bigger and bigger challenges. For example, if you’re going to take on the challenge of ending world poverty, you have to construct the challenge and your expectations in such a way that you feel you are completing significant milestones. If you just toil away all day for 40 years at the challenge but never feel a gratifying sense of completing important and meaningful projects, you will lose your sense of engagement. This is why organizational change agents will always design small wins into a change plan. Such wins give an opportunity to score performance--we’re succeeding!-- but also provide moments when people sense they have completed something important--we finished that!
Finally, challenges that enliven you are those that allow a sharing of experience and achievement. Climbing Mount Everest would hit all our previous criteria, and that alone would make it a wonderfully satisfying experience. But climbing Everest with someone else would feel infinitely better. Standing atop a mountain and jumping in place to celebrate feels terrific; getting to do so and then turning to hug someone and recognize the experience and achievement together is indescribably more fulfilling. Not all sharing need be so epic. Attempting to stitch a more complex quilt fits the first four criteria as well. What makes the activity ultimately satisfying, though, is showing the new quilt to your loved ones, who can ooh and aah and celebrate or, ultimately, enjoy your creation. Often, it’s talking about and celebrating how we have faced and triumphed over our challenges that put the icing on the cake. It’s important that you understand how vital this is to your psyche and desire to take on more and more complex challenges. Even if you overcome a tremendous challenge and feel the personal victory, it’s simply not powerful enough. It may activate your left brain, which says, I have achieved, but it will not activate your more social right brain, which desperately desires to say, Look, Ma, I did it!
[Image: Flickr user The World According to Marty]