After debilitating anxiety and panic attacks began to inhibit his daily life, Ben Aldridge decided to do something about it. He began to tackle his mental health issues in a creative way, by embarking upon a Year of Adversity and completing weird and wonderful challenges, many of which are documented in his book, How to Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: 43 Weird & Wonderful Ways to Build a Strong Resilient Mindset.
The challenges ranged from feats of mental strength including learning how to solve a Rubiks cube, memorise an entire deck of cards and voluntarily sitting in traffic jams, to physical and endurance tests including cold exposure, climbing mountains, eating insects and sleeping outside in a bivvy bag. Within each challenge there were lessons to be found, and soon Aldridge not only saw himself in a different light but moved past the anxiety of his former self.
The book starts with a panic attack in Caesars Palace hotel and concludes in ten key lessons, learned by Aldridge whilst he put his mind, body and patience through tests that he wasn’t sure he’d make it through. Here are the ten key lessons he learned.
Every time Aldridge began a challenge, his mind created barriers and ceilings. How long he would last, how fast he would go, when he would give up. But he surprised himself countless times. “I was always amazed at how different the reality was from my perceived reality,” he explained. “The list of things I thought I couldn’t do was massive.” You are so much more capable than you think you are. Aldridge urges you to not “let your false perception of something destroy your chances of success.”
The best view comes after the hardest climb, and the most rewarding challenge completions come after the most effort. Sometimes this effort happens over long periods of time. “A lot of the skills that I developed across the year required me to keep pushing through resistance,” confirmed Aldridge. The skills described included fiddly ones such as origami and rock climbing as well as learning a complex language like Japanese.
A few months into his Year of Adversity, Aldridge noticed he was being too strict with himself. If he skipped a cold shower, a workout, or missed a daily quota of writing or learning Japanese, he would become frustrated. When it impacted his fun during a weekend away with friends he realised that a commitment to improving himself by expanding his comfort zone didn’t need to come at the expense of his happiness. “[My] inflexibility became more of a hindrance in the long run… always looking for the lesson would have been a healthier attitude to adopt.” He now knows that “not being too hard on yourself is an important skill to have.”
Focus on past achievement
A great way to push through difficulty is to remember all the times you have overcome it before. Every mountain, recall those you have already summited. Every speech or presentation, back yourself to deliver like last time. Aldridge found focusing on the achievements he had under his belt gave him the confidence to make bigger attempts. “When I began focusing on the things that I had already managed to overcome, it really helped to propel me forward.” Documenting small wins in a storage container labelled the “jar of adversity” helped them never be forgotten.
Facing your fears
Aldridge admits that moving towards his fears took him a long time. “On paper, it’s so easy, but in reality, it’s one of the hardest things you can do.” But he knows that overcoming difficulty brings growth and growth brings “a whole world of positivity and greatness.” What scares you? Opportunities and activities that break you out in cold sweats are probably exactly what you should be heading for. For Aldridge it was acupuncture, sleeping outside, cold showers and indoor triathlons, but everyone is different. Book the class, raise your hand, put your hat in the ring. Face your fears head on and be less afraid for ever more.
Look for the lesson
You win or you learn, there is no other way. Aldridge’s assortment of comfort zone-stretching challenges taught him that there is always a lesson to be found. Whether picking up an injury whilst marathon training or being temporarily held back by anxiety, finding the lesson means adopting a growth mindset and searching relentlessly for the gift. Each of the 43 challenges has a “what I learned” section to draw the lesson out, a header that entrepreneurs could write at the top of each day’s journal entry. “Keep your eyes peeled and you will find many lessons in unusual places,” he explained. Maybe even at the bottom of a bivvy bag!
Everyone is dealing with something
Openly facing his fears amassed a tribe of support for Aldridge and he found that, upon hearing of his quest to overcome anxiety, others “often instantly open up about things they have been personally experiencing.” Sharing his worries made others feel comfortable talking about theirs. Aldridge found it reassuring knowing that everyone has some kind of issue; it helped him keep empathy at the forefront of his mind and led to this lesson’s parting advice of, “don’t suffer in silence.”
Adversity role models
No matter what you are going through, someone exists who has trodden the same path. The key to succeeding as they did is channelling their courage or mirroring some of their actions. Aldridge encouraged readers to create a series of adversity role models. “Those around you who handle tough situations with style and confidence, and people you don’t know who have overcome difficulties in their lives.” Knowing it’s possible for someone else can reassure you that it’s possible for you. Because it is. Not easy, not straightforward, but possible. And that’s all you need.
Feed the right wolf
In a profound story originating from Native America, a small boy’s grandfather explains there are two wolves inside every person. One wolf is good, one wolf is bad. To the boy’s question of, “which wolf wins?” his grandfather’s response is, “the one you feed.” You can choose a positive or negative way of looking at any adverse news or tough challenge. Before the Year of Adversity, Aldridge admitted he “was someone who chose to focus on negativity, anxiety and fear.” But by always focusing on that, “I became those emotions. My bad wolf was winning the battle.” Which wolf are you feeding? Which wolf will win?
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
The best lessons are easier read than done. Theory and documentation are all very well, but expanding your comfort zone requires more than armchair sports or social media commentary. Feats of endurance and strength have thousands of spectators for every competitor, but the person in the arena is getting all the benefit. “If I hadn’t got out there and pushed myself in the real world with these challenges and ideas, I wouldn’t have changed.” Aldridge describes his hands-on experience as “magic” and urges readers to welcome their own challenges and their accompanying lessons.
If you never challenge yourself, you never change. How many entrepreneurs and business leaders operate within a known perimeter of comfort, rarely stepping outside its safe walls? Incorporating mini challenges into your routine may surprise you in more ways than one.