At 3:30pm on July 14th 1938, a four-man team of Austrian and German climbers reached the summit of the Eiger after more than three days on the infamous, deadly and previously unclimbed north face. The ‘Mordwand’ (murder wall) had turned away or killed every climber before them but Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek negotiated notorious rockfall, avalanches and blizzards to pass the ultimate test. Thirty one years later to the day, the Apollo 11 astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after the first successful mission to land on the moon, surviving a journey only previously understood in theory.
Neither climbing the north face of the Eiger or landing on the moon were essential to human life. Both came with huge risks and the price of failure would likely have been death for those at the sharp-end. But those involved chose to take on the challenge, with no precedent for success. And though we won’t all find our way into the history books in the same way, the majority of us regularly choose to take on challenges with no guarantee of success. Some run marathons and ultramarathons, some climb mountains. Others play soccer or bet at the poker table. Video games, board games, musical instruments and second languages — from the extreme to the mundane, the act follows the same desire to take on a challenge, risk failure and pursue progress. And so often, in the midst of the act, we aren’t having fun in the most obvious sense. We focus and grit our teeth to overcome difficulties and lament our mistakes. You won’t catch the soccer player grinning for the entirety of a game, nor the board gamer laughing from the first roll of the dice to the last. There’s a kind of value in these experiences that transcends any shallow or superficial understand of fun and happiness.
The challenges we choose give us an opportunity to progress. And when we progress and develop skills, we gain access to ‘flow’ — the state of complete immersion that comes with taking on difficulty with skill. It’s there that we find the true value in the act and the key ingredient for a kind of happiness and satisfaction that can’t be recreated with superficial sensation. Embracing challenges and setting goals opens the door to valuable experience, regardless of the outcome. The small victories along the way to the ultimate goal can be equally important, if not more important than the final victory — a climber can fail to reach the summit but still have a transformative experience along the way.
“Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: ’Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing’” Jonathan Haidt
If the outcome is known and the task at hand easy, there’s no progress to be had. It’s only in taking on true challenge and choosing adversity that we gain access to meaning, happiness and contentment. And though we might not always hold that principle in the forefront of our minds, it manifests in our shared enjoyment of and dependence on hobbies, games, sports and intellectual pursuits.
When we choose our own challenges we embrace the difficulties that come with them. Often that means committing ourselves to pain and suffering, risk of harm, financial hardship, relationship trouble, psychological turmoil and so on. The difficulties we put ourselves through aren’t an unfortunate side-effect of the pursuit of progress but an essential ingredient. We embrace the difficulty because without it, there can be no progress, and no value.
But we have a paradoxical relationship with challenge. So often when challenges are thrust upon us by circumstance, we shy away, evade or collapse under pressure and lament the random forces that put obstacles in our way. We can look at our far-off hopes for what life could look like, see the immense disconnect between that magical place and our current circumstances and concede that our lives will always fall short of the gold standard. Too often this will lead to feelings of hopelessness and disappointment on a grand scale and to a harsh re-evaluation of our lives. We force ourselves through a painful acceptance of our inadequacy or failure and readjust to settle for something less than we hoped for. Social pressure, status and wealth hierarchies only intensify the pain.
Ultimately this is simply a framing problem — we place too much emphasis on the goal and forget the value of the process. If we find a way to reframe the way we look at challenge, both chosen and unchosen, we can find value in any struggle, whether we opted in or had no choice. The goal is an important part of any challenge, it’s the waypoint that orients the journey. But if we are transported directly there, we’ve lost the value of the experience entirely. Running a marathon is a much more rewarding experience when we work to get there. And that perfect lifestyle we envision, the financial security, the comfort and freedom we want for ourselves and our loved ones is the same. If we were to be immediately gifted all of those things, we’d quickly find ourselves searching for new challenges and striving for new benchmarks.
The adversity that we will face in striving for the lifestyle we desire, has the potential to provide more value than the goal alone could deliver. When facing unchosen challenges, we should work to reconnect the goal to the journey, as we would with a fitness goal or game — see the goal, map the journey as best you can and then shift your focus to the task before you. Embrace the fact that the task before you is where the value lies. Whether you reach the ultimate goal or not, the small wins, the progress that fuels meaning and happiness, is right in front of you. And the fact that you didn’t choose a challenge shouldn’t make a difference to the possibility of improvement, progress and the happiness that comes with it.
We’re easily drawn into status contests and a fight for a higher position in the social hierarchy, but what’s it all for? Happiness, fulfilment and meaning aren’t directly tied to that hierarchy. We don’t need to be reminded that wealthy, famous, renowned and celebrated individuals often have torrid day-to-day lives and suffer through disappointment and unhappiness. When we place all emphasis on the goal and forget the value of the process, we accept a black and white outlook of success or failure. But the runner that doesn’t make the finish line at the big race still had the experience of training, and each small victory along the way. They are still in better shape than when they set out on their journey and no doubt enjoyed a lot of unexpected positive experiences. The climber wouldn’t trade the climb for a helicopter ride to the summit.
Forge the black and white view of success or failure and bring your focus back to the life you are living now. See the summit, map the journey, look up every now and then to remind yourself and draw inspiration but then get back to work. Focus on what’s in front of you and appreciate its value, for this is the very substance of your story. And when you embrace challenge and commit to progress, it becomes as valuable a story as any other, regardless of the ending.