Friday, March 14, 2014

When the going gets tough..

What's the hardest thing you've ever done? And what's your relationship with it? 

The phrase we're musing on this week is "The toughest thing you ever did could well be the best thing you ever did". This has got me thinking on my own achievements: which ones hold the most value to me, and why do I feel that way?

Compared to many people's incredibly tough lives around the world I am aware that life hasn't been too unkind to me on the whole, but we all face challenges whatever cards we are dealt. 

Reflecting back on my life, I can see that things I may have considered tough at the time when much younger I now take for granted - for instance speaking in front of others, singing and playing guitar at the same time, long runs - all of these have felt tough challenges at different times and for different reasons.

In my mind, there is clearly a link between facing (and overcoming) tough circumstances or situations and growing as a person. In some ways it can be a means of developing our inner strength in a similar way that resistance training can build our physical strength.

I'm resisting the urge here to regale to you all the amazing achievements that I have made, as this isn't meant to be that kind of post - and I'm in a more philosophical mood as I write anyway!

I do think we can often take ourselves and our abilities for granted. If you're anything like me then you can overplay the circumstances and situations that trouble you, and underplay your own powers of endurance, imagination and creativity. 

This brings to mind a quote from Dr Mike Stroud who as a doctor has been researching the ability of the human body to endure. He has famously accompanied Sir Ranulph Fiennes on some of his more extreme polar adventures - and more close to home was also attached to the same Dietetics and Nutrition department as my wife when we lived in Southampton! 

In his excellent book 'Survival of the fittest' he talks about the delay between starting exercise and our brains sending out the signals to activate the required energy systems in our bodies. Counter-intuitively, it can feel harder to do a short run than a long run, as we start by accumulating an oxygen debt, and by the time the brain gets round to sorting this out, we've accumulated lactic acid which needs clearing: 

"This takes some time, so the first couple of miles of any run can be rough. It leads to an odd phenomenon. Most people feel less fatigued after running five or six miles than they do when they have run one or two. Some inexperienced runners never realise this, and even quite reasonable athletes may believe that distance running is not for them. they have never run far enough to reach equilibrium and comfort and so have never found the capability that evolution bestowed on nearly all of us".

So thinking about tough things reaping rewards, sometimes we just need to go further to realise that we can actually do it. Enduring will be worth it - perhaps we will gain a new perspective, perhaps facing a tragedy will help us come alongside others in the future, other opportunities will arise as a result, and like resistance training it's all strengthening and shaping our character (perhaps knocking off rough edges!). We may even find that we feel less fatigued after enduring for longer!

I deliberately haven't gone into detail in this post about the difference that a healthy relationship with God can have on our perspective of tough times and on the manner in which we approach and endure them - that could be an entire blog post in itself! Suffice to say that I passionately believe in a loving God who plans the best for us no matter what happens, and helps us to make the best of what we consider to be broken situations, circumstances and lives. God can, and does, help us be the very best representation of who we can be and I do not believe we can reach our full potential without God's help - but that's a topic for another time.

Some years back I had reached the point in my career to undertake my professional review with a venerable engineering institution. I carefully prepared all my documents, submitted them in time, prepared presentations and with some trepidation travelled to London to be interviewed by two reviewers. I felt prepared, I felt I deserved to pass - but it didn't go well. In fact I felt utterly ripped to shreds and in due course I received a letter going into great detail about how I hadn't made the grade. 

Needless to say I was crushed, my colleagues cried foul and family and friends provided much needed support. I slowly picked myself up, took a long hard look in the mirror, tried to take the review comments on the chin, rewrote all my documentation and re-sat the next year.

Except this time, although the day itself went better, I still received a regretful letter identifying how short of the mark I still was! At this second setback I did seriously consider leaving the industry, but while I was picking the pieces of my professional confidence up off the floor a wise old colleague suggested an alternative path with a different institution -  and in hindsight one much more suited to my experience and skills. 

Happily the story ends well, and the more I look back on it the more grateful I am to have gone through the trial I did, since focusing on water and the environment rather than pure civil engineering has actually been much more fulfilling and has opened much more interesting doors for me since! One of my toughest things has proved to be one of the best.. and I'm sure many of you could relate similar stories.

I'll finish with a quote from Sir Ken Robinson's book 'The Element' (a book about finding your passions.. the place where you're in your element, so to speak) in the context of how we can underestimate the potential we have for growth and change: 

"For the most part, people seem to think that life is linear, that our capacities decline as we grow older, and that opportunities we have missed are gone for ever. Many people have not found their element because they don't understand their constant potential for renewal."

So when the going gets tough, as it often does, let's remember that it's often the first few miles that seem hardest, but that we can go much further than we initially think we can..

(This post was written as part of the Blog Buddies group. Here are related posts by Nicola and WendyIf you want to join our blog buddies group contact

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