#8- Adversity, Improvement, and our Deeply-Held Assumptions
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Adversity, Improvement, and our Deeply-Held Assumptions

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Welcome back to Peak Performance, our newsletter highlighting the latest science in performance and personal growth.

Reflecting on his struggles in life, the famed French writer Marcel Proust once said, “We don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, and until something fails to go as we had hoped.” Proust wasn’t romanticizing the commonly held notion of a suffering artist, destined to face darkness on the path to originality. Rather, he had identified that with great challenge comes great opportunity – opportunity for growth and opportunity for reevaluating our deeply-held assumptions.
A large body of research shows that we tend to get locked into very specific lines of thinking. The lens through which we see the world (or our “worldview”), which is shaped by our prior experiences, becomes increasingly fixed over time. As a result, we may miss important details not because they are out of sight, but because our own personal lens isn’t calibrated to see them. This is completely natural: The brain is designed to focus on what it deems important, and, not surprisingly, the things that the brain deems important are generally the things that corroborate our view of the world. In other words, we tend to see what we are looking for.
But research shows that when we are faced with a major challenge – or dare we say, a “problem” – our lens is often knocked loose.  Adversity attacks our sense of safety and makes us vulnerable when we are used to feeling secure, shattering the illusion of an impenetrable “self." This primes us for thorough self-reflection and evaluation. We become aware of information that would otherwise pass us by and we explore modes of thinking that we wouldn’t normally consider. Our deeply held assumptions float to the surface where they can be more objectively evaluated. Put differently: Adversity has a unique way of forcing us to let our guard down so that we can examine the beliefs that influence our thinking, feeling, and being.
Still, this doesn't always happen automatically.  When faced with adversity we tend to react in one of two ways:
  1. Become defensive: We perceive the challenge/adversity as a negative, as an attack on our “self.” This pushes us into defensive mode and we look for ways to justify our views of both our internal self and the world around us. We stick to our guns at all costs.
  2. Update our views: We use challenge/adversity as an opportunity to evaluate our assumptions, updating our view of our self and/or the world to more closely align with reality. This often means taking stock of our goals, values, and beliefs (along with our strengths and weaknesses) and making adjustments as little as getting more sleep or as large as switching careers. This requires difficult conversations with ourselves and, in some cases, with others.
Choosing option number two is not easy. Adversity may elicit a range of negative emotions – from sadness, to fear, to hopelessness to anger. But as Marcel Proust realized long ago, if we let it, adversity can serve as a chance to reflect, improve, and realign. We’ve just got to do the hard work of letting it.  

We want to reiterate this is much easier to say and write about than to do. The last thing you want to do when you fall short of making the Olympic team, getting the promotion you were after, or far worse, receiving a bad medical diagnosis, is to ask yourself: Why do I do what I do?  Why do I think how I think? But, at least according to the latest science, asking and answering these very questions gives you the best chance at long-term happiness and fulfillment.
Try This:
  • When faced with adversity, one natural reaction is to become defensive: To go on the attack, to separate yourself from the negative experience, and to blame outside factors for the mishap. Instead of doing those things, try to dig deep to understand what really happened and how you can adapt as a result. Very rarely do negative situations have nothing to do with your actions. And they almost always open up the door for constructive evaluation and change.
  • We aren’t suggesting you seek out adversity, and there is no need to wait for adversity to occur to go through this process. It just so happens that adversity acts as a natural trigger for deep questioning. But you can regularly practice questioning your assumptions. Set aside some time every week for self-reflection. Pick a heated issue and ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Try to understand others’ points of view. Or ask yourself, “Am I spending may days how I want to, making use of my unique skills?” Doing this is hard because it requires letting go of your ego and opening yourself up to change, but the benefits are enormous. It ensures “your world” is aligned with “the world,” promotes empathy and compassion, and, in a paradoxical way, helps you to be happy and fulfilled.
  • When you are faced with adversity, embrace it. Allow yourself to feel down and shitty for 24 to 48 hours. But after that initial period has passed, shift your mindset from feeling sorry for yourself to looking for insight that will help you on your path forward.
Learn More
“The biggest obstacle to increasing self-awareness is the tendency to avoid discomfort that comes from seeing yourself as you really are.”
– Travis Bradberry

“Self-examination may temporarily bruise your ego but you’ll be better off for it in the long run.” – Ravee Mehta 
That’s it for this edition of Peak Performance.  We hope you learned something new.  Don’t hesitate to send us your questions or comments or to reach out on Twitter @SteveMagness and @Bstulberg.
Finally, if you find this newsletter interesting and useful, please share with your friends and colleagues.
Brad and Steve

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