Why We Need Challenges in Our Lives


Our lives tend to be pretty messy and chaotic. They’re riddled with never-ending to-do lists, depicted in the form of packed calendars, and punctuated by endless odd circumstances that serve to crop up and throw a kink in things.

Because life is generally so crazy, we often seek ways to inject predictability and routine into the mix. When at least some things are humming along in accordance with a usual, expected pattern, it lessens our anxiety and gives us more of a sense of control over our lives.

Not only can we then breathe and let go more easily, but having those routines and that modicum of predictability in place grants us the mental space and energy we need to manage all of the random things that inevitably arise. So, in many ways, these sorts of regular patterns can be beneficial to incorporate into our daily lives.

But here’s the problem with predictability and routine: it doesn’t challenge us.

When we fall into a groove with something, we generally find it pretty easy to repeat it and integrate it as a habit. And unless or until something changes to interrupt that habit, things are simple. There’s little-to-no challenge involved and everything’s fairly manageable.

So why is that an issue? Or, put differently, why might we want to build more challenges into our lives?

Because what doesn’t challenge you won’t change you.

If you don’t have challenges to face and risks of failure to confront, you won’t change. When your life is largely ruled by your habits and things are predictable, there’s really no need for you to buck the status quo. You already know what to expect and how to react and what to do. There’s no reason to do things differently.

But if we don’t change, that also means we won’t improve. We need change in order to grow and become better versions of ourselves. We can’t develop very much as people by holding fast to the reins of certainty and stability and never testing our limits.

When we face trials and challenges, we’re often called upon to adapt and change in some way. Challenges can be nuanced and typically entail a certain degree of difficulty (or they really wouldn’t be all that “challenging” in the first place). We usually cannot take a familiar approach to addressing them.

Rather, challenges tend to call for problem-solving and creative thinking. Sometimes they even require us to integrate new people or activities into our lives. And while they can arise naturally and serve to disruptively impose themselves on us, we can also proactively make the choice to invite them in.

For instance, this year, I set a New Year’s resolution to learn how to lead climb. When I set this resolution, I’d been comfortably top-roping (i.e., rock climbing various routes up walls while secured by a rope feeding down from the top of each route, attached on the other end to a belayer) for roughly a year and a half.

If you fall while top-roping, as long as you have a good belayer, you usually don’t fall very far - maybe a couple of feet, at the most. You’re secured by the rope that’s up top, and you grow comfortable trusting it fairly quickly.

And, although I continually pushed my limits by attempting to climb harder and harder routes, featuring progressively smaller holds and necessitating ever more technical movements, after a year and a half, I’d admittedly sunk into a certain level of comfort with this form of climbing. I had successfully incorporated top-roping sessions with friends into my life as a habit, and the activity felt safe, secure, and familiar to me.

The drawback? I was no longer learning, growing, or progressing much as a climber on a day-to-day basis. For that, I’d need to introduce more challenges into my life.

So a couple of weeks ago, I began learning how to lead climb.

With lead climbing, instead of being attached to the wall by a rope at the top of your route, the rope is instead tied to you at the bottom. From there, you take the rope up with you as you climb, clipping it through carabiners stationed along the way, all the while placing yourself in precarious positions on the wall (since you have to take one hand off of the holds at various points to lift and feed the rope up through each of the clips) and exposing yourself to greater risks than when top-roping (in the form of larger potential falls, more dependence on your belay partner, and greater chances for errors and injury).

If you fall while lead climbing, you typically fall further than when top-roping, because you plummet below the last carabiner you clipped your rope through (which is often beneath you instead of above you). And these falls are the kind of sudden drops that give you the feeling of having butterflies in your stomach. With no rope above to catch you, lead climbing sets up more of a free-fall scenario.

Stepping outside of my comfort zone and learning how to lead climb presented me with a worthy challenge. I learned and practiced new breathing techniques while on the wall. I experimented with taking some big falls during my climbing sessions. And as I worked through each new challenge, I gradually began to evolve as a climber.

I grew - becoming bolder, tougher, and stronger. And I discovered how much I loved the expansiveness that I felt each time I pushed beyond the bounds of my comfort zone. I loved being able to sense my growth like it was a tangible thing.

If I had simply continued top-roping and never challenged myself to learn how to lead climb, I’m sure I’d still be having plenty of fun on the climbing wall. But I’d never have experienced the level of development, progression, and growth that I have from choosing to take on a new challenge.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that adopting new practices or learning new things is easy, painless, or even necessarily enjoyable. But in the end, my point is this: challenges enable us to change and grow.

And if we can learn to give ourselves more opportunities to confront challenges and make the most of them when they naturally arise by facing them head-on with strength and grace, we can often find or create a silver lining within them. Challenges give us the chance to become something more - something greater. Maybe even something pretty damn incredible.