Do Something that Sucks

Greetings aspiring heroes. Today I'm going to start off with some of the worst advice you can ever get:

Every cloud has its silver lining.
When one door closes, another door opens.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Okay, the idea itself isn't bad. It's usually true—no matter how crushing something might seem, it can probably teach you something valuable about yourself. It may even lead to new opportunities. In fact, contrary to popular belief, optimism is slightly more realistic than pessimism (unless you're a lawyer). Heck, some people even have the wherewithal to celebrate their failure.

So the whole silver-cloud thing isn't necessarily wrong. Then why is it bad advice?

Because you don't want to hear that rigamarole when you're down.

Seriously. Dumped by your boyfriend? The silver lining can eat it. Fired from work? Closed doors are bullcrap. Someone you love has a tumor? Do you think "being stronger" is the first of your three wishes?

These well-intentioned nothings are not very helpful when the guano hits the fan. But if you've read anything I've written you know I'm not going to suggest you give up. This is the Heroic Life we're talking about, and we don't surrender. So let me suggest this instead:

Do something that completely sucks.

Recently I wrote about my first experiences living in the wilderness with nothing. They're experiences I treasure, but they were by no means easy. When most people go camping they take a tent, some good food, and a case of beer. I enjoy that kind of camping. But living off the land is different than that: building shelter with your bare hands, catching or foraging your own food, and generally inventing, improvising, or doing without any tool that you might be used to having.

I expected to get a whole lot of comments saying "I could never do that!" and telling me how crazy I was.

But, something else happened.

Instead I got a whole lot of people telling me about the hardest experiences they freely choseto do, and how it changed their lives. Camping in tornado weather, living in the Sahara, even sleeping by a steam vent in a volcano. (Seriously, that guy rocks.)

None of these people said their experiences were easy. Neither did I. In fact, learning to eat insect eggs kind of totally sucks. Most of us were terrified, and every one of us could have chosen to quit, or not go at all.

But we didn't. The thing we all agree on is: it was so worth it.

Why? Is it because we're all hopeless adrenaline junkies? Do we just crave abuse? Mom didn't hug us enough?

No, I'm going to throw out a different explanation. When you choose to willingly enter into a hardship, you get to try out your instincts and reactions under controlled conditions. You have a sense of what's coming, you can do your best to prepare for it, and you know it's only temporary. So when the bottom drops out you get to see how you handle panic and strain without actually experiencing trauma.

It's like testing your parachute, without the risk of falling (far).

More than that, when you work through those intentional hardships you learn valuable things about yourself, and you might even get a new perspective that leads to new opportunities. (It was living with hunter-gatherers and constructing a lodge by hand that convinced me our temple could build an Irish cottage.) So in other words, you get the same silver lining, without getting lost in grey clouds.

This will have a huge payoff when a real crisis happens. A crisis can mean the loss of a loved one, a car wreck, a house fire, or anything else suitably horrible you choose to imagine. But the defining feature of a crisis is that it's beyond your control.

We all have crises in life. No one gets a free pass. So when the unthinkable happens and catches you by surprise, wouldn't it be nice if you just instinctively, without thinking, knew how to react? That might include things like:

  1. Keeping a level head
  2. Being honest with those around you
  3. Thinking up creative solutions instead of wallowing in despair
  4. Finding healthy ways to deal with your anxiety or express your anger/fear/grief

These aren't things you can fake, ladies and gentlemen. And they're definitely not things you have to be "born with." (Yuck.) It's a skill set. You can learn it. And the way you do that is through practice. By doing something you know is going to suck, under controlled conditions, just to prove you can do it.