Life is a constant test. Most of us don't know where our true strengths and weaknesses lie or what they are--we just know we have them. If life teaches us anything, it's that it will not always be easy and it will expose our weaknesses. As such, we need to choose to put ourselves to the test from time to time--think of it as a diagnostic tool for yourself and current state of being. Consider this: the reasons we exercise are not the same reasons we take part in something like a Spartan race or a marathon. In those activities, we compete against others and ultimately, ourselves--and that is the ultimate test.
Here are five lessons I learned about testing your limits from some of the most inspirational, gritty, and seasoned individuals on the planet who shared some insight on how they persevered.
1. Find your way off the beaten path. There's a tried and true adage that suggests sometimes you have to lose yourself to truly find yourself and Levison Wood proved this in remarkable fashion. He walked the River Nile--4,300 miles of deserts, swamps, pythons, and war zones--across five diverse countries with constantly changing topography to, not only push his limits but, educate himself in the process.
Sure, Levison Wood could have rented a vehicle and stocked it with all the comforts and supplies necessary to make the same trip in a fraction of the time, but he would have been just that--a trip, not an experience. Wood put himself to the test by taking himself well beyond his physical and mental limits to see a world few will ever see; one that exists in a perpetual state of raw danger, beauty, breathtaking sights, and amazing cultures.
Was it dangerous? Absolutely, but with the adventure must come the ability to manage the risks life presents. "Part of going on an expedition is embracing risk and for me that's what it's all about because without those risks you don't get the rewards that can come out of these things."
2. Embrace failure at every opportunity. Matt Segal defines himself as a rock climber. "For me, climbing is not just a physical activity; it's just a way to get fit. It's also kind of a way of life." For anyone with a passion in life, it is inevitable that there will be failures.
People have two choices when confronted with failure--stop and sulk, or learn from those failures and make progress. When we stay on a single trajectory, we risk burnout. Segal varies the type of climbing he does and plans his life around his passion. Segal also says, "If you’re not failing, you're not learning.” Life is full of challenges and, just like rock climbing, there are many ways to navigate and negotiate the obstacles in our path. Periodic failure is inevitable; however, the best lessons are those we pull from our perceived failures. Remember, progress begins where your comfort zone ends.
3. Distance makes the heart grow stronger. Mimi Anderson is a British ultrarunner (defined as running any distance over 26.2 miles), whose feats of physical endurance are matched only by her mental strength. Her model for success involves taking the leap, embracing the risk of failure, and pushing her boundaries to, not only reach the finish line but, grow as a person. Mimi Anderson's journey started with a perfectly normal motivation.
"I started running because I wanted to thin the legs. When a friend of mine suggested I run the Marathon des Sables…I just had that moment in my heart where I thought, 'Why can't I do that?' It was just so out of the ordinary for a mother with three children that someone was suggesting I go out and do this adventure." However, Anderson chose to test herself in ways nobody expected from her. The only expectation they did have was that she would fail. Her grit, talent, application and determination have seen her excel at a sport few can fathom a woman who started running in her mid-30s could dominate.
4. Starve to reveal the beast within yourself. Desperation can make people access the part of them that is suppressed for most of us. Life is full of comforts that distance us from our evolutionary past.
Monty Halls is known for undertaking some insane challenges and going on some incredible adventures. He lives outside of his comfort zone. His adventurous experiences, and as a Royal Marine, reveal a savage side of the human condition that is embedded in everyone's DNA. Halls believes people are the most fearsome predators on earth--people just don't let themselves tap into that side of themselves. People often get derailed on the path to success because they are afraid to fail.
"Success is fulfilling your potential. There's always a reason not to do something, not to finish a race. You'll never dislike yourself for failing, but, on your deathbed, you'll hate yourself for not trying things. Having not tried this will haunt you." Monty also points out the value in confronting fears and discovering unknowns. "I think it's healthy to slay dragons."
As with all risks in life, there must be a measure of self-monitoring to save you from yourself, or in Monty's words, "The bravest thing you can do is say no to a challenge outside of your experience level."
5. Some races have no finish line. Chris Legh knows a thing or two about the physical and emotional hurdles endurance events present to competitors. As the winner of 96 major triathlons, Chris has been through it all. However, at the 1997 Ironman Kona finish line, when Chris could have lost his life and was presumed retired, he discovered that some feats are indeed insurmountable and it's not about what happened, but how we bounce back from failure that defines us. As an athlete, Legh has discovered what it takes to claw past the doubts, pain, and fears--all to finish what he started. The life lesson in motivation can carry you through severe bouts of suffering when all else fails.
Pushing your limits is an invitation for failure, pain, and, oftentimes, a recipe for doubt and fear. Know this: every person has the tools and capabilities to break down the barriers that lie before them. Don't be defined by apathy, don't let fear dictate your decisions and direction in life. Find your passion, be willing to suffer while doing so, get stronger and make the choice to put yourself to the test.