An attendee at my Harvard talk wrote me about his starting a couple Sidchas. I asked him if I could share his experience because it illustrates how we grow when we challenge ourselves. Making a challenging daily habit stick not easy, but I find that knowing that others face the same obstacles and that overcoming them is just as hard for everyone else makes it easier.
You’ll also see that the challenges aren’t what most people expect and prepare for, like physical fatigue or having the right clothing or equipment. The main challenges are your emotions and emotional system, especially empathy gaps, where the motivation you feel when planning a challenge goes away, replaced with complacency, lethargy, feeling like you already did enough, and so on. Easy to say you’ll overcome or power through it when you face it, but when you face it, you feel like you deserve a break.
I’ll comment on his report below. He wrote:
Remember that phone interview I mentioned before that went well? Well I got the job! Basically I generate leads by talking to customers as they walk into the store. Now, I am very introverted and don’t have any natural talent for this sort of work. That’s one reason why I’m glad I have this job—it’s going to help me get out of my comfort zone and grow. But anyways, on the cold shower topic:
Saturday was my first day. Saturday morning I told myself that if the cold water was really unbearable after 20 seconds then I could make it hot. The half dozen times I had told myself this previously it became bearable after a few seconds and I managed to stay in the cold for the full 5 minutes. However, this time I just couldn’t handle it and turned the hot water on as soon as I said “twenty” to myself. That night, however, after I got home and ate dinner I tried again. I took another shower, this time staying in the cold for the full 5 minutes.
Sunday was rough. I didn’t even try the cold water in the morning. I just told myself that I’d take a 5 minute cold shower when I got home and that right now in the morning I’d just take a hot shower. (I hadn’t been up that early in months). I had a long drive to where I was doing my training. And I finished the day training on the floor, talking to a bunch of customers. This day was rough though because for two hours I didn’t generate any leads and then when I finally got one right before I was about to finish the day, I botched it. I ended up leaving a few minutes late and had a long commute home. My introverted self was mentally exhausted. I did consciously remember that I still needed to take a 5-minute cold shower, but my thought was “I have no need to take a shower right now and I am exhausted and just want to got to sleep.” So I did, ending my 13-day streak of 5+ min cold showers.
Today (Monday, the next day), I woke up and felt bad, so I took a hot shower again. Later this afternoon I was thinking, “So am I never going to take a cold shower again?” I remembered some wisdom about how when you fail it’s important that you get back up and try again and that as long as you do that you haven’t truly failed. You only fail when you accept defeat by not getting back up. I realized that I was naturally about to use my failure to take a 5 min cold shower yesterday as a reason to not take cold showers anymore (after all, my streak was now broken and I my attempt at the 30 day challenge just ended in failure, so why continue?). But I know that this is bad logic. Perhaps there are good reasons to not take cold showers, but I wasn’t going to let myself stop taking cold showers for the bad reason that I failed to take one the previous day thus ending my streak / causing me to fail the challenge. So I committed to taking a cold shower again tonight. And I did take it. In fact, while I was taking it I decided to go for 10 minutes instead of 5. I know I can’t change the past / make up for my failure to take a 5 min cold shower yesterday, but taking the cold shower for 10 minutes felt great anyways, because it felt like I was doing the best I could in the moment, which is the best one can ever do. Anyways, I was shivering before I got in the shower, and my teeth were chattering before 5 minutes was up, and I was dancing around frantically trying to avoid freezing, etc, but I made it through the 10 minutes.
So now my goal is to stop relying on this “Oh, I can take a second shower tonight” idea and instead really try to take a 5-min cold shower in the morning. I’m going to do this at least for another 16 days (which will be 30 days after my first 5 min cold shower) and will evaluate whether I want to do more at that point.
Also by the way I’ve been doing burpees everyday that I’ve done the cold showers. I didn’t mention it because I’m only doing 4 a day (8 today to “make up for” yesterday’s lack of burpees). This isn’t that easy for me (I have little upper-body strength for push-ups), but it isn’t that challenging either. Regardless of whether I choose to continue with the cold showers at the 30-day mark I’ll probably increase the number of burpees and keep doing them daily.
I love reading stories like this!
I see you doing championship work, and I use that word deliberately.
First, congratulations on the job. Regarding “introversion,” check out this post for why I can’t stand even to use the word without quotes: “Master introversion AND extroversion.”
Regarding the difficulty of facing cold water, a book that inspires me and puts a five-minute shower in perspective is Man’s Search for Meaning, by a man who lived through Auschwitz, where he saw people create meaning and emerge better for the experience, at least I think he would say that. It taught me that if people in that environment could create meaning and emotional reward, then anyone with a less oppressive environment can too. When you’re about to get in a cold shower, you can’t think of much else, meaning you lose perspective. The book gives me perspective to ask how bad five minutes of cold water can actually be: in comparison to what strengthened him? Not very.
Regarding starting up, when I started I struggled to make my habits regular. You’re in a new territory and you have to figure out what works or not. I think everyone finds their tricks, as I wrote in “What are your tricks?” and “Successful behavior comes from little tricks more than lofty ideals.”
Okay, now to what I see as the championship work: sticking with the habit when you don’t want to.
Doing a habit when you feel discouraged is when it counts. All the other times—when it feels easy, your friends are helping you, you’re well-rested and just read a motivational story, etc—are mostly valuable for preparing you for when you feel discouraged or motivate not to.
All the times you don’t have to overcome your own motivations create value, to be sure. Consistency creates structure. Burpees exercise you, which makes you strong and physically resilient. But those benefits, as important as they are, are trivial compared to that discipline built on awareness of your emotions, motivations, and how to create the ones you want no matter what you’re feeling. Everything else comes from those skills.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, who achieved some success, described this concept in body building and physical pain, but it’s the same in any area, and not just pain, but the discouragement and aversion the pain creates:
The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.
His quote is why I used the word champion. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a life based on comfort and pleasure. Cookies and ice cream taste just as good to me as anyone else and cold showers feel just as uncomfortable. But pleasure pales in value to what Schwarzenegger described and I believe you described yourself starting to experience, though I’m sure you’ve handled things like this before.
I predict as you handle more of these challenges and further develop the relevant skills, more things in the rest of life will feel easier: diet, exercise, relationships, leading others, simplifying, etc. The issue with those other things is never physical ability, any more than it is with taking a cold shower. You know how sometimes someone pushes your buttons and, despite yourself, you start arguing? We all do. And we all have the physical ability to move our lips and tongues to say words that don’t get into arguments. The question is do you do it?
The relevant struggle isn’t about calories, external resistance, or cold water. No one died or even got injured from five minutes of cold water in their home shower. This struggle to do what the deepest parts of you want when the less important parts discourage you is how you grow in what I consider the most important way. No words capture it and how much more valuable it is than cookies and ice cream, at least for those of us who value this kind of growth. Only experience. That’s why Joel Runyon‘s mentor told him to act and didn’t try to explain his answer. And why both of us are taking longer to write our messages than it took to create the understanding we both got from the cold showers we took when we felt discouraged.
As for the burpees and starting with four, the starting point doesn’t matter. You start with what you have. I suggest viewing it not that because you’re weak you don’t exercise as much but that because you don’t exercise as much you’re weak. Soon because you exercise you’ll overcome your weakness.
Besides, soon your lungs will limit you. Or your whole body, because burpees work most of it.