The merits of challenge, or how to survive anything

I just read an article from the New York Times about John Aldridge, an offshore fisherman from Montauk who fell overboard in July and survived for 12 hours in the cool Atlantic until he was found by rescue teams from the Coast Guard.  They were thrilled and relieved to find him as they were searching an area the size of Rhode Island, just hoping to spot a tiny head bobbing on the surface of the water.

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At the very end of the article the reporter talked to all of the people involved about how they had fared since the incident.  Aldridge's father still has trouble sleeping through the night and says, "It's never out of my mind.  Never."  Aldridge's fishing partner still seemed shaken as well, saying that "it was the whole feeling of helplessness.  Something was torn out of me, and that part doesn't just show back up."  

John Aldridge himself, however, reports that he has "no nightmares, no flashbacks, no fear when he goes out on the water to work."  He feels proud of himself, secure in his belief that he contributed meaningfully to his survival and that he can feel safer knowing that he has himself to rely on.  When it was all said and done Aldridge is quoted as saying, "I did it.  I had that sense of accomplishment... I felt I did my part."

So Aldridge spent twelve hours with numb hands and a blistering face, being circled by sharks and dunked under waves.  But he also turned his rubber boots into flotation devices, was able to use the map in his mind of lobster buoys in the area and his awareness of currents to navigate towards and attach himself to a buoy to help him float and increase his visibility, and had a utility knife pulled and a plan in mind of how exactly to use it should the circling sharks approach.  Aldridge walked away from this experience empowered and accomplished while his family and friends, who were only able to worry, were left shaken and terrorized. 

There's a term in psychology that refers to ones belief in ones own capability to cope with challenges: self efficacy.  People with strong self efficacy view obstacles as challenges to be overcome; those with weaker self efficacy are easily intimidated, and in their certainty that they will fail are often reluctant to try.  They are also slower to bounce back from disappointments while those with strong self efficacy are quick to dust themselves off and try again.

John Aldridge had a high sense of self efficacy, and applied all the skills in his tool bag to improving his chances for survival.  He was the one who walked away from his trial feeling safer, stronger, more sure of himself.  Those who felt there was nothing they could do to prevent or improve the situation continued to suffer long after the incident had passed.  But the deep confidence that powers that kind of accomplishment isn't made in the moment, it's built up over time and through a vast number of small victories.  

Every blog I read seems to have six easy steps to make a perfect life, but the more painful truth is that success is a process, not a goal.  Building the skills it takes to feel happy, safe, and successful in your life such as resilience, self efficacy, focus, commitment, and compassion for yourself and others take time and practice.  There will come a moment when you need these skills, and if you want the best possible chance at success you'd best get started on the process of developing the kind of self efficacy that can get you through anything.  

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So start small, and start now.  Practice stretching yourself, taking on a goal that is just beyond the safety zone and in which failure will hurt.  Win or lose, you'll learn something you need to know to ever move on to catching bigger fish.

Reflect on your successes, and not just the flashy ones.  Think back on the ones where you thought you were going to fail, then pulled it off by the skin of your teeth.  How did it feel to expect failure?  How did you stick with it?  How did it feel when you did turn it around?  Be prepared to turn it around again next time you're in that position.

Don't dwell on the flops.  Sift through the wreckage for anything that might be of use and then release the rest as best you can.  You are made up of what you carry with you, so try not to hold too tightly to the weak spots.  Do the best you can and move on.

Take risks!  If you only do what you know how to do, you'll never realize how quick you can think on your feet, how well your knowledge transfers, how far you can get on a warm smile or how easily you can adapt to whatever a situation requires.  You have skills you've never tapped into, so branch out and consider the idea that you will never reach the bounds of your capability.

Because here's the thing: even if you did great in high school and got into a great college and graduated Summa, some day, one way or another, you will fall overboard and find yourself with stars above, darkness below, and sharks all around.  The reality is that you will not get the job you desperately want, or the marriage won't work out the way you'd hoped, or disease will come calling.  How you are able to position yourself in response to these challenges can completely change the meaning and impact of the experience, make it one that haunts you or one that defines you.  I wish you every success in the world, but success doesn't prepare you for falling overboard in the middle of the night.  Challenge does, so embrace it!