Choose the Challenge

Our environment and biology are oriented towards choosing pleasure and avoiding pain, but such patterns hurt health, relationships, and our ability to grow.

You have two choices. Over the next year you can either:

Option A

Live in a barracks with 19 other same-sex peers. You will all be woken up every morning before 5 am for arduous physical training. You’ll eat the same three healthy meals every day: oatmeal with fruit and sunflower seeds; tilapia, broccoli, brown rice, and beans for lunch; a chicken walnut salad with olive oil and apple cider vinegar for dinner.

You have two choices. Over the next year you can either:

Option A

Live in a barracks with 19 other same-sex peers. You will all be woken up every morning before 5 am for arduous physical training. You’ll eat the same three healthy meals every day: oatmeal with fruit and sunflower seeds; tilapia, broccoli, brown rice, and beans for lunch; a chicken walnut salad with olive oil and apple cider vinegar for dinner.

You’ll attend challenging classes learning Mandarin, logic, psychology, history, economics, and computer programming after breakfast each day.

After lunch, you’ll spend every afternoon in the desert heat building a large school with your roommates. You’ll return to the barracks to shower, then eat dinner, and spend the evening studying, reading, and writing until 10 pm when you all return to the barracks.

Teachers and work managers will demand that you work at the fringe of your limits each day and will punish any effort that falls short of that standard. Every month there will be a 72-hour period where your roommates and you are dropped in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a map and a thermos of water. If your group fails to return within three days. You’ll repeat the exercise the following week.

Option B

Wake whenever you like each morning. Eat either French toast, donuts, Captain Crunch, cinnamon rolls, or biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Choose any fast-food taco, hamburger, or fried chicken meal you prefer for lunch.

Eat as much pizza, chicken wings, nachos, pasta, chicken fried steak, loaded macaroni, loaded baked potatoes, or sweet glazed ribs as you like for dinner and follow that up with whatever dessert you like. Between meals, feel free to snack on as many sodas, chips, and store-bought cookies as you like and drink whatever adult beverages you like, whenever you like.

You can choose to spend the day playing video games, watching TV, viewing pornography, scanning the internet, participating in social media, shopping, getting massages, lounging at the pool, attending concerts, or heading to bars.

You can combine these activities however you like and hang out with whoever you like, but they will all be people who have chosen option B as well.

Each option is non-negotiable. You will live one full year of your life in complete accordance with these stipulations.

What Do You Choose?

Clearly, option A will require far more suffering, hardship, and effort than option B, while B will feature far more immediate pleasure.

The majority of people’s ethical worldview is defined in exactly these terms and oriented entirely towards Option B—enhance pleasure, decrease pain and suffering. Even our natural operating system is oriented to promote pleasure and avoid pain. So, why are you skeptical of B?

Despite this massive differential in pleasure and pain, there is an inexplicable sense of satisfaction and joy that we anticipate from option A.

As anyone who has experienced a challenge of any length with elements similar to that of option A will attest, such experiences are somehow full of profound highs and frequent hearty laughter.

Heading into such a decision, I imagine a random sample of people would be split on what decision they’d make. Yet from the other side there would be no split at all. If we were told that we could choose an option and skip ahead to realize the effects of that year, then everyone would choose option A.

At the culmination of a year, we’d all wish we’d chosen option A, because we know we’d be healthier, stronger, smarter, more resilient, deeply connected to a group of peers, and full of amazing stories. We’d have talents that unlocked opportunities and unique perspective.

We’d feel accomplished seeing a school standing where once there was nothing and know that with daily effort we were capable of amazing feats.

Option B is the “good life,” full of constantly satisfied desires, but at the end of that year, we would we be more impulsive, fatter, less resilient, mentally duller, and surrounded by relationships based only on superficial interests.

In fact, as each day within this year went by, option A would begin looking more appealing and option B less.

There is a certain law of diminishing returns when it comes to these addictive low-order pleasures. Option B is the better way to spend a day, but a far worse way to spend a few months, a year, and certainly a lifetime.

Finding Meaning Through Challenge

“My dear child, I do not worry about the bleakness of life. I worry about the bleakness of having no challenges in life.”

– Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Letter to my Unborn Daughter

As we saw last time in my piece on how to use fitness to counteract automation, this is the great struggle of raising children in this age of temptation.

Absent of a need to secure our own survival and while immersed in incomprehensible opportunity to satisfy our impulses, we are unlikely to choose the experiences that breed fulfillment. How do we orient our kids towards a life of purpose?

I wouldn’t advocate a life of constant boot camp either. There is joy to be had from careless nights eating pizza, drinking wine, and enjoying good company. Yet, these are only meaningful as contrasts to a life of effort and purpose.

Given the extremes of modern society, the bigger risk is certainly allowing oneself to live life as a passive, entertainment driven impulse machine.

We go in debt chasing elements of option B and we’re diminished as a result. Ironically, the hardships of option A are mostly free, potentially lucrative, and fulfilling, but few messages pull us in that direction.

The modern parenting paradigm obsesses on providing to excess and protecting from pain, yet excess grows insufficient and comfort breeds a soft entitlement that promotes constant dissatisfaction.

Pain is clearly a necessary antecedent of lasting happiness and purpose. In a world of abundant comfort and entertainment, the fulfilled will consistently choose exercise, learning, and challenge.

As congressman Ben Sasse advocates in his book, The Vanishing American Adult, from a young age we should be building our children a menu of hard, yet appropriate challenges. This is the only route to growth and endearing a willingness to overcome adversity.

Older kids need to experience hard physical labor and self-reliance. Sasse found a farm for his daughter to work at one high-school summer. My worldview changed immensely from my summers working landscaping and then later construction. Talk about a workout.

“From sacrifice comes meaning. From struggle comes purpose.”

– Ryan Holiday

Even though the scenario that began this article is clearly a rather exaggerated hypothetical, many of our youth are making a similar decision right now. Following a linear standard model of success, 17-year-olds across the country are trying to decide what college to go to.

Lacking life experience or the challenges that endear purpose, most have no idea what they want to spend a hundred thousand plus dollars learning. Their decision is disproportionately weighed in favor of finding pleasures and staying comfortable, rather than seeking the real, vulnerable experiences they need. Unconventional as it is to say, most have no business going to college at this point.

We get one life. It is tempting to waste that living according to other people’s conception of normal and falling prey to the impulse mine-field constantly pulling us away from the challenges that would make us more—choose challenge. Over and over, choose challenge for your kid’s sake. Sign up for the half-marathon, the Obstacle Race, or the triathlon.

Go to the Brazilian jiu-jitsu class. When your kids are old enough, take them on a three-day backpacking trip. The most profound lessons defy language. Meaning can’t be imparted from a book. These experiences are true education.

This Week’s Mission

If he or she is old enough, take your kid and do the following fitness gauntlet. Record your numbers. It is a challenge you can repeat and compete.

  • Max push-ups in a minute – Each rep you have to get all the way to the ground, take your hands off the ground, and then return to push-up form to press up.
  • Bodyweight (round down to the nearest 5) farmer’s walk.
  • 300-yard shuttle
  • Pull-ups to failure
  • Bear crawl to failure – How far can you go without putting a knee down?