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Marcel Hagener and Simone Maier, Red Bull Defiance Adventure Race, New Zealand. Photo: Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

Marcel Hagener and Simone Maier, Red Bull Defiance Adventure Race, New Zealand. Photo: Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

If our American culture has one fatal flaw, it is our obsession with comfort. In almost every aspect of the so-called “American Dream,” the main goal, the main objective, is achieving a state of comfort, insulating and protecting ourselves from the difficulties and challenges in the world around us.

The default question that the average American asks is, “what’s the easiest way? What is the path of least resistance, the easiest way for me to achieve a state of comfort?”

Before I go on, you have to check out this Facebook video posted by #besomebody:

#BeSomebody hits the proverbial nail on the head in this video because so often, we ask for easy. We want to be comfortable.

Here are a couple of the many problems caused by our love of comfort:

Problem 1: Too Often, We Expect Things to Simply Be Given to Us

“The problem is that everybody wants the prize, but nobody wants to pay the price. Nobody’s willing to put in the work.” -#BeSomebody

Simply put, this is the entitlement problem that is running rampant in our culture today. Because we exist, because we’re taking up space and pulling oxygen into our lungs, we expect that accolades, successes, and all of the best fruits of life should be given to us as our inherent, deserved reward.

The reality is that anything good in life, anything worth having, is not easy to achieve. It takes a lot of work, dedication, and sweat of the brow in order to secure for ourselves the things that we want in life. Whether it be possessions, fame, experiences, freedom, time, money, adventure, relationships, true purpose… none of these things are deposited into our laps simply because our mothers chose to embrace difficulty and pain to birth us into this world.

Problem 2: We Give Up when Things Get Difficult

“Nobody is willing to eat their own shit to make it happen.” -#BeSomebody

Even if someone has successfully made the mental leap from Problem 1 to deciding, “Oh, I should do something to go out and achieve this impressive goal on my own,” too often the moment things get hard, we give up.

We begin to spiritualize the difficulties that we face with phrases like, “oh, it wasn’t meant to be.” “God shut that door for me.” “The universe didn’t actualize my desire.”

Instead of persevering through the difficulty, our resolve crumbles in the face of adversity. When the going gets tough, work, resilience, and effort are required.

Solution: Choosing to Challenge Yourself

Malcolm Patterson, Red Bull Defiance Adventure Race, New Zealand. Photo: Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

Malcolm Patterson, Red Bull Defiance Adventure Race, New Zealand. Photo: Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

Do you know what the least comfortable thing in the world is? Doing hard things, voluntarily.

The solution to the problems above is choosing to challenge yourself. Choosing to put yourself through difficulty and adversity and hardships.

Sure, persevering through hardships that are thrust upon you, surviving a deadly conflict that you had no choice in and in no way caused yourself, is indeed admirable, and many biographies have been written about such people. But in my opinion, even more admirable are the people who persevere through such an epic atrocity (say, a Holocaust concentration camp), but then afterwards choose to voluntarily still do hard things that they don’t have to do, like becoming a public speaker or writing a book.

The choice, in fact, is the key. Choosing to challenge yourself when you don’t have to can transform your life, turning you into a tougher, more resilient human being.

Jocko Willink, an ex-Navy Seal Commander, puts it this way: “if you want to be tougher mentally, it is simple: Be tougher. Don’t meditate on it.”

Tim Ferriss expands on this quote of Willink’s: “‘Being tougher’ was, more than anything, a decision to be tougher. It’s possible to immediately ‘be tougher,’ starting with your next decision.” (Tools of Titans)

It all comes back to the choice. Will you choose to take on a near-impossible task, a goal of epic proportions, a job that you might NOT succeed at? Even for the most dedicated of decision makers, if your goal is truly tremendous, if it not only takes you outside of your comfort zone but takes you so far into the wilderness that you can’t even see your comfort zone anymore, this idea can still be daunting and intimidating.

Here’s the good news: “it is a myth that you’re either born tough or you’re not. The truth is, toughness, both mental and physical, can and should be trained and cultivated, just like any other skill.” (Khaled Allen)

Transforming yourself through voluntary challenges, by choosing to walk through the fire and out the other side a more refined person, provides a multitude of benefits.

Benefit 1: You Are More Equipped to Handle Involuntary Adversity

“In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” -Seneca, The Moral Letters to Lucilius

As Seneca illustrates above, if you voluntarily train yourself to handle adversity and develop toughness–both mental and physical–you are thereby equipping yourself to deal with the adversity that you’re not expecting (the attack of the enemy in the above example).

While we might hope that the only challenges we have to face are the ones that we select ourselves, the reality is that even those challenges, as monumental as they may be, don’t have the ability to surprise us, startle us, or kick us when we’re already down. The challenges that we don’t expect are the ones that can truly cripple us. Things like physical injury, a death in the family, war, natural disaster… the list goes on.

While we can’t know what calamity will strike us or when, we can work to make ourselves resilient to these difficulties by choosing to train our bodies and our minds to be tougher.

Benefit 2: Rise Above the Rest by Becoming Superhuman

“If it was easy, then everybody would be doing it, right?” -#BeSomebody

“. . .being superhuman means living a life over and beyond that of the normal, average person. Being part of the top percentage, the human elite, who refuse to accept mediocrity in any aspect of life.” –Brett McKay

Because of the fatal flaw of the American Dream, the goal of achieving a state of comfort and ease, even if someone makes it through the mental gymnastics required to free their mind and ambitions from the engrained status quo, that isn’t enough to find success. Action must follow that transformation of thinking, and if we want those actions to get us anywhere in this struggle of doing difficult things, they must, by definition, be pretty damn difficult.

As highlighted in problem #2 above, when it comes time to act, the majority of people who have been indoctrinated into our culture of comfort can’t hack it, or choose not to persevere through the hard times. If you can instead embrace the pain and the discomfort, you’ve already passed most of the masses. If you can continue to persevere and develop your toughness and resilience, you can rise above the rest of humanity by becoming “superhuman.” As Brett McKay defines it above, being superhuman isn’t synonymous with being a superhero or a demigod. Rather, it means that you’ve joined “the top percentage, the human elite, who refuse to accept mediocrity.”

More good news for those who are willing to persevere? Almost nobody else is, so becoming one of the human elite is way easier than you might think.

Action Step: Go Mountain Biking

Bob Mclachlan, Red Bull Defiance Adventure Race, New Zealand. Photo: Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

Bob Mclachlan, Red Bull Defiance Adventure Race, New Zealand. Photo: Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

Those of us who claim membership in the mountain biking tribe already have a leg up on the vast majority of humanity, because the basic essence and practice of our sport develops physical and mental toughness.

Just take a read through Khaled Allen’s article about training toughness, and look at some of the action steps and takeaways:

  • Allow (or seek out) small inconveniences and discomforts in your everyday life. Learn to tolerate them.
  • Start to judge your internal monologue, rather than simply accepting it for what it is. Actually listen to what you’re saying and decide if it’s a belief you want to let into your life.
  • Expose yourself to rough environments and forgo the usual protection, increasing the intensity of exposure slowly over time.
  • Learn and implement mobility and self-maintenance exercises into your regular training routine.
  • Train with less rest between sets or workouts, but take excellent care of yourself in the meantime.
  • Train outside in all weather with as little protection as you can tolerate.

All of these things can be trained on the mountain bike or in a mountain bike-centric training routine:

  • Small inconveniences and discomforts are rampant in the practice of mountain biking–everything from fixing a broken bike, to a saddle sore.
  • Train positive self talk, as highlighted in this article.
  • Mountain biking takes place in rough environments by default, and if you’re embracing a light-and-fast ethos, protection from the elements may only slow you down.
  • Stretching and cross-training are vital to MTB health–here’s just one article on the topic.
  • This practice can be critical for those training for ultra endurance stage races or bikepacking events. Instead of always recovering fully between hard rides, in these circumstances the rider needs to prepare for difficult back-to-back efforts.
  • This is called “going for a mountain bike ride in the mountains.”

If your mountain bike rides currently feel comfortable and attainable, if you’re not feeling like a self-flagellating luddite, then you simply need to ratchet the difficulty level up a notch. Again, the key is choosing to be tougher and challenging yourself voluntarily. Oftentimes, we achieve a level of comfort and complacency through our training, and need to find new goals to challenge ourselves and build to new heights of resilience. Check out Scott Cotter’s excellent article “Unleash Your Inner Beast: Why You Need to Do an Endurance Race this Year” for more motivation on this topic.

Parting Thought

Here’s the thing: nobody can force you to harden yourself into a tougher, more prepared, more successful, superhuman. America has done an incredible job of cultivating a society in which we can skate along without challenging ourselves, staying in our bubbles of comfort and ease as we wander through our lives. (That is, if you can avoid or somehow recover from the unexpected calamities that inevitably arise.)

The only person who can choose to be tougher, who can choose to challenge themselves, who can choose to become superhuman, is you.

Personally, I’m subscribing to Bryan Callen’s advice in Tools of Titans:

“You should try to slay dragons.”

I’m choosing to be the superhuman dragon slayer, not the villager cowering in fear.

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# Comments

  • kawazoomer

    You are tougher… so what? What does that really buy you? Self satisfaction? Self esteem? Admiration by others?

    Is it enough to go through high school, work and or attend collage, advance yourself to the point you are able to have and support a wife 2.5 children, have a nice house, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, boat, and all the luxuries that you like. Then once you achieve this you must do things to make that harder? To different degrees depending on how much your position pays? Once you have attained that what does it really matter,? I assume you are saying once you reach this point, you have to toughen up. Lets say you do, again so what?

    The real question is… What is the measure of your success?
    For someone like yourself it might be to be the toughest man on the planet.
    On the secular side
    For some it is to be the wealthiest,
    For some the fastest/strongest/best athlete.
    For some who wins the most races wins.
    For some it is who acquires the most toys is the one who wins.
    For others it is to have power over others so they must do as you dictate.
    For some it is how many women they can conquer, for others it is how many nations.
    For others it is it is if they are the smartest or most intelligent.
    On the religious side
    For some it is who is the most loving
    For some it is who is the greatest servant of all
    For some it is how the most truthful or the most obedient.
    For others it is how much they can give away to others.

    For you comment, “go mountain biking” and “Those of us who claim membership in the mountain biking tribe already have a leg up on the vast majority of humanity”
    For the secular side, someone who measures success by wealth, power, influence, or accumulation of toys would laugh at your statement.
    The religious side would think little of it.
    “For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.”

    There is a lot of tough things to do out there and to do things because they are hard to do might have some value but you must figure out what is the measure of your success. Then you can work hard in the areas that matter and make a difference to you and if riding your bicycle on a harder trail, or making an achievement or winning a challenge or being faster in a segment then you must diminish the above list to concentrate your efforts on what matters.

    My point being just because you do something because it is hard doesn’t mean much unless you determined what is the measure of your success. As for me, I am not going to make things worthwhile doing any harder. Things that are worthwhile doing are usually hard enough and I am not going to make it harder on myself to do them. IMHO

  • Chemandy70

    teach high school for 25 years, you’ll see it. but you’ll also see them grow out of it. i’m showing it in class tomorrow.

  • mongwolf

    Interesting thread and responses to Greg’s column. Thanks Greg for always openly sharing your thoughts and stirring the pot. It’s fun and healthy. IMO, Kawazoomer made a good point about attaching a measure of success to your effort. One of the real secrets in life is to evaluate what is true success. This will cause you to search your values. Certainly the greatest thing in my life is not riding my bike — though I do it frequently and with a passion. However, what I do on my bike does translate to many areas of my life including my faith interestingly. I try to integrate riding with other areas and values I have. It seems to me that whatever your take is on what Greg said, challenging ourselves is a good thing — in whatever area of our lives that may be. We can choose not to, but I personally do not think that is the best thing. All of us have room to grow in EVERY aspect of being a human being — most of us LOTS of room. =) Does that mean we should always be pressing to the nth degree and killing ourselves? No. There is a balance between aspiration and chillaxin’ a little. Press on, ride on, laugh a lot, don’t take yourself too seriously, find a contentment with your efforts, find a contentment with and without things, and consider others as more important than yourself.

  • cliffdog70

    In the U.S. a bicycle is nothing more than a “TOY”, in some countries/cultures it’s more, but in the U.S. it’s a “TOY”. Don’t take yourself too serious whilst playing.

  • Aaron Chamberlain

    I think Greg made some good points here, mainly that anything truly rewarding isn’t going to be easy to achieve. However, I do have an issue with his main premise that the American Dream relates specifically to comfort. From my personal experience – what I was read and taught – the American Dream really boils down to doing better than your parents. So, to me, the American Dream isn’t about reaching some arbitrary level of “comfort,” it’s about always striving to do better. And that can take many forms. Doing better financially. Taking better care of yourself. Spending more time with your family. I think it’s up to the individual to decide what constitutes doing better, though. This is what kawazoomer was touching on. What’s your measure of success?

    So, Greg’s notion that the American Dream is all about comfort and insulation seems perfectly at odds with what I consider to be the definition. If you’re always striving to do better – better than your parents, better than you did yesterday – then that is inherently hard and doesn’t allow for insulation.

      • Aaron Chamberlain

        You’re welcome! Like I said, you raised a lot of good points and many things I agree with. I especially liked the quote from Jocko Willink. I also went and read some Khaled Allen’s stuff and his distinction between strength and toughness is spot on.

        And of course you know that I’m all about doing hard things voluntarily!

  • Scott Cotter

    Greg, this article says so much … thanks for writing it.

    Last weekend at the 24HOP, the conditions were anything but good. At 3ish AM on Sunday morning, it was raining and the temps were flirting with freezing. I was in the start house with racers going out into the darkness and nary a complaint was heard. People were still smiling and joking. And a German photographer I met while out there was shivering so hard he could hardly hold his camera steady … and he was smiling the entire time.

    This, to me, has been one of the reasons why I love this sport. Mountain bikers are tough, capable, and all-around good people. And they’ve learned a lesson that everyone should learn. If you get to a place where it’s uncomfortable or downright hard, you’ve got what it takes to fight your way out of it. Too many times people in western civilizations try to eliminate anything that is difficult. That is to our detriment.

    • Greg Heil

      One thing I know: I am not that hardcore.

      Thanks for the anecdote Scott!

  • ACree

    Best article against shuttle culture that I’ve read.

      • Greg Heil

        Ha! Yeah this definitely isn’t aimed at shuttle culture specifically… I’ve been known to do all kinds of shuttle rides, as Aaron pointed out.

        Yet at the same time, if you have to shuttle for every single time you head out to ride your mountain bike… that’s kinda lame to me.

        Also, there’s a big difference between shuttling a 500-foot climb for a 1-mile DH lap and shuttling a 4,000 foot climb that leads you to a 35-mile epic that still offers up an additional 2-3k of climbing (aka Monarch Crest). Food for thought…

  • mongwolf

    Greg, thanks for the new inspiring vision. I went for my second ride of the year here in Mongolia and had my first opportunity of the year “to do something hard voluntarily” — though it ended up in failure in terms of accomplishment. It was supposed to be a sunny day, mid-20s and relatively calm. Ideal early season conditions. I was going out with a close friend and fairly new rider. So I was ready for a pretty chill fun day on the bike. But when we arrived at our starting point and got out of the car, we were greeted with a pounding wind out of the NW. The ambient temp was 20 F, but the wind chills were obviously well below zero. I was mentally ready and really wanting to take on the elements. My friend was up for it too, so off we went pedaling across the grassland towards our chosen mountain. The wind was relentless, but I was thrilled, and not chilled, because new thermal gear was doing the job. After about a mile and half though, my buddy started to freeze up. I gave him some extra head gear I had, and that helped a lot, but I could tell he wasn’t going to want to go too long. We ended up cutting the ride way short, did about 5 miles and had a good time together — most importantly. It was his first ride of the year, and we celebrated that. Though I didn’t get to take on the challenge that this day presented, it reminded me that Mongolia is the perfect place “To do something hard voluntarily.” I can’t wait to see what Mongolia throws at me this year, and I also want to alter my goals for the year to reflect this new vision. Again, thanks for the new vision Greg. I’m all in.

    • Greg Heil

      Right on!! Can’t wait to hear about all your adventures in the coming year!

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