Why and How You Should Train for Adversity
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” — Calvin Coolidge, 30th US President
The spirit of Coolidge’s quote has been echoed time and time again by high performers across many domains on my podcast, whether it was Robert Greene, Michael Shermer, Ryan Serhant, or Georges St Pierre; they all say that resilience is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, factor underpinning success.
This is why venture capitalists invest in people first. Veteran Israeli VC Yossi Vardi, who has exited 30 of 86 investments, told CNBC that when he started investing he thought ideas were overrated — now he thinks they’re irrelevant. “It’s about execution and the personality of the people, rather than about the idea”.
In sports, UFC legend Georges St Pierre told me that “confidence plus skill equals success”.
“Skill without confidence is like having lots of money in the bank but not being able to spend it”.
Anything Worth Doing Will Be Difficult
Most worthwhile pursuits are going to be difficult but as Roman philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius put it, “what stands in the way becomes the way”.
Whether it’s building a successful business, overcoming an opponent in the ring, or scoring that new job you’ve been working towards, the road to your goals will no doubt be paved with trials and tribulations that see you questioning your very sense of self.
As Mark Manson puts it in his bestselling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, “the more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid doing it”.
Countless talented and educated people fail to amount to much and truly leave their mark of realized potential on the world because they give up at the first, second or third rendezvous with adversity or hardship, and instead end up optimizing for comfort — usually manifest in a comfortable nine-to-five job and a live-for-the-weekend outlook.
We’re Wired to Optimize for Comfort
Evolution is somewhat to blame. We evolved to conserve energy, and to avoid doing things that might see us become ostracised from the tribe upon which we relied for security and survival.
That’s partly why most people get so damned, inexplicably nervous before stepping onto a stage to speak in front of a group of people. In fact, 25.3% of Americans say that they fear speaking in front of a crowd — the nation’s biggest fear; clowns come in second with 7.6%.
This programming may have been a good thing for surviving in a dangerous world, but it is a liability in the safety of a protected environment and stands in between us and our goals.
Channeling Theodore Roosevelt, to dare greatly and avoid the company of cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat, we must train for adversity just like we train our muscles.
As Ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, put it, “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘is this the condition that I feared?’”
By voluntarily training for adversity, you will be more prepared to overcome it when it involuntarily appears — which it inevitably will. This will give you an advantage over the armies of people who aspire to great things but don’t have a positive relationship with adversity.
“Everybody wants to be famous but nobody wants to do the work” — Kevin Hart
It might not be that they don’t want to do the work, just that they want the work to be easy, and their ego to be spared. The comedian would’ve had his ego trampled on countless times as he made his way up the ranks. Today, he is a great example of a successful person who has developed a healthy relationship with adversity. He told Howard Stern that “bombing’s the best feeling in the world… when I’m bombing, they’re being honest. This isn’t good. You need that. You need to be able to check yourself and go, ‘Oh, wait. This may not be good”.
How I Train for Adversity
Since venturing into the entrepreneurial game about eight years ago, and having built several modestly successful businesses, and become a published author, I’m always engineering adversity into my life.
It doesn’t matter how often I do this, jumping into a freezing cold shower at 7 am in the morning is always uncomfortable — every fiber in my body is screaming “don’t do it!”, but paradoxically, once I’m done I feel like I’m operating at a higher level of consciousness.
Learning to Surf
Hitting the beach enthusiastically at the age of 34 with a 7-foot soft board, only to wipe out time and time again, whilst kids one-third my age effortlessly ride barrels hurts the ego. But as Zig Ziglar put it, “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly until you can do it well”. And surfing, like cold showers, always leaves you feeling amazing afterward regardless of how many waves you caught if any.
Hitting the Open-mic Standup Comedy Circuit
Having delivered numerous keynotes at conferences to several hundred people, you might think that braving a 5-minute standup set at a smoky back-alley bar in front of 20 people would be a piece of cake? It isn’t. Doing this filled me with anticipatory anxiety all day long but once I was done, I felt a sense of relief, and unbridled positive energy running through my veins. Noticing a trend here? After my first hair-raising show, I did a further four shows.
Learning to Ride a Motorcycle
When you get your motorcycle learners, you don’t really know how to ride a motorcycle yet. After a brief drivers license course, you’re set free on the roads on your own two-wheeled metal monster. You might look call — that is until you wind up stalling the bike repeatedly at traffic lights whilst an army of horn-honking cars piles up behind you. #discomfort
But with each ride you get a little better until eventually, you’re cruising down the coast and absolutely loving it; something you wouldn't have experienced if you didn’t overcome the initial discomfort.
I’ve traveled to numerous cities on my own, including many non-English speaking cities. As somebody who leans to introvert, this means stepping out of my comfort zone to meet people and make new friends in unfamiliar lands. It might mean trying to navigate conversations with somebody who doesn’t speak a word of English or eating something that curiously resembles a poisonous fish you saw on The Simpsons.
Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we no longer need to go days without eating. Nowadays, we’re far more likely to overeat and graze all day long instead of knowing what it’s like to be mildly hungry. I make a concerted effort to fast for about 15–16 hours a day, which is initially very uncomfortable, but after a while is a practice that comes with a mental clarity and self-sufficiency that you come to enjoy.
Early Morning Gym Sessions
Finally, I try to train in the morning each and every day. Two to three times a week, I just want to press snooze and the idea of doing some burpees, or box jumps, seems physically impossible. But then I will myself out of bed, get through it anyway, and have essentially started the day by overcoming that little self-limiting, energy-conserving voice in my head.
There are countless ways you might go about injecting a little more adversity into your life. Ultimately, it might come down to saying yes to things that you normally might say no to because they challenge your ego.
By doing so, you’ll be far more likely to play the long game and far more likely to succeed. And if you don’t, at least you will have some stories to tell.
For as Hunter S Thompson put it, “life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”