The Benefits of Challenging Yourself: Reach Your Full Potential

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Comfort Crisis" by Michael Easter. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

What are your limits? How often do you test them? Why should you push them?

In The Comfort Crisis, Michael Easter argues that the cozy conveniences of the Western world harm our health and happiness by depriving us of challenges that our ancestors regularly faced. He recommends that we push ourselves to our limits and enjoy the results.

Read on to discover the profound benefits of challenging yourself.

The Benefits of Challenging Yourself

One of the ways comfort holds us back is by making us hesitant to challenge ourselves and discover our full potential. Because of this, many of us don’t feel tested, which is linked to psychological issues such as anxiety and depression. On top of that, when we don’t push our limits, we never discover our full potential. We’ll break down this issue by explaining why we rarely dare to step out of our comfort zones and the negative effects this has. To remedy this problem, we’ll explain how embracing challenges helps you feel happy, confident, and more resilient. You might be surprised to learn some of the benefits of challenging yourself.

Why We’re Hesitant to Challenge Ourselves

Easter explains that we limit ourselves with restrictive comfort zones because we evolved to have a disproportionate fear of failure. For most of human history, failure often meant death. For example, if you failed to successfully run down prey, you might starve. However, today’s failures rarely have serious consequences. For example, if you fail to complete the marathon you’re running, you’re unlikely to lose your partner, shelter, or food to survive. Therefore, Easter argues that our fear of failure isn’t as applicable to our modern circumstances and it instead limits us from doing things that can make our life more meaningful.

(Shortform note: In Discipline Equals Freedom, Jocko Willink claims that, like Easter, fearing failure can stop you from acting at all. His solution: fear stagnation more than failure. Imagine in days, weeks, or years from now, being no closer to your goal or the best version of yourself. Let the fear of all of this wasted time and potential spur you into action. Building on Willink’s solution to fear stagnation more than failure, consider using this “time travel” thought exercise to remedy your fear of failure. With this exercise, you’ll imagine the future consequences of your actions now in order to make better decisions for your future self.)

How Challenging Ourselves Helps Us Feel Happy and Grow

Easter says that we all crave to be challenged and transformed. Challenges that test our physical and mental capacity help us feel happy, confident, and more resilient.

When you push yourself beyond your perceived limits, you give yourself a boost in confidence because you prove to yourself that you can go further than you previously thought. In this way, any future challenges seem more conquerable. Furthermore, people with a history of struggle demonstrate more resilience when faced with new challenges. Easter cites one study that tested the pain tolerance of participants by having them hold their hands in ice water. The study found that participants who had experienced some hardship in life found the pain more tolerable than participants that experienced no hardship. 

(Shortform note: In Stoic philosophy, challenges are made more manageable by viewing them as opportunities for self-improvement. In The Obstacle Is the Way, Ryan Holiday explains that identifying silver linings will help you overcome whatever adversity you face because your perception of a situation determines the quality of your response to the problem. For example, if you feel intimidated by a dream job offer because you think you’re hopelessly incapable of performing to the standard it requires, you might not try it at all. On the other hand, if you embrace the job offer as an opportunity to improve yourself to meet the standards of the company, you’ll be more likely to take meaningful action.)

Comfort Remedy: Go on a Challenging Adventure

Here are Easter’s tips to embark on a transformational challenge:

  • Make sure your challenge is difficult but not deadly. This means doing something that you have roughly a 50% chance of accomplishing. If you fail, that’s okay. Your goal should be to push yourself, not to cross a finish line. Just make sure that the consequence of failing isn’t death.
  • Make your adventure unique to you. Design your challenge so that it’s challenging for you at your level of capability, not anyone else’s. By making your challenge unique to yourself, it’ll help make the experience about personal growth and prevent the temptation to compare yourself to other people, which is ultimately unsatisfying. 
  • Don’t share your challenging adventure on social media. Easter says that sharing your challenge on social media can make the challenge about obtaining attention rather than personal perseverance. 
What Does It Mean to Challenge Yourself?

In Rule 7 of 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson says the best way to ensure you’re challenging yourself enough to grow and live meaningfully is to live on the edge of order and chaos. He describes order as the familiar, comfortable parts of your life and chaos as any experience that’s unpredictable and stressful. By living on the edge of order and chaos, you’ll have enough order to feel confident, but enough chaos to challenge yourself and grow. If we apply this concept to Easter’s prescription to an uncomfortable adventure challenge, this might look like taking some familiar gear (order) along with you as you try to run further than you ever have before (chaos).

Like Easter, Peterson also thinks you should push yourself for the purpose of self-improvement. For Peterson, this means growing to be a more capable person, which will ultimately help you act in ways that reduce unnecessary suffering. To him, this is the most meaningful pursuit in life.

Exercise: Embark on a Challenging Adventure

To overcome limiting comforts in your life and discover more of your potential, Easter says it’s valuable to challenge yourself with an adventure that tests your mental and physical capabilities. To do this effectively, he says it’s important to make your challenge truly difficult and to ensure your goal is to improve yourself rather than to seek attention or to compete with someone else. 

  1. Describe a time you intentionally challenged yourself and came away from the experience disappointed or unsatisfied. Was the challenge too difficult or too easy, or were the results different than you expected?
  2. If you could redo this challenge, what would you change? For example, would you adjust your expectations, your preparation, or your measures of success?
  3. Think about a new way you could challenge yourself that would be unique to you rather than competing with someone else. Write about how you could push yourself in this challenge so that you have roughly a 50% chance of succeeding.
  4. To help align your goal with personal growth, write about why you’d like to challenge yourself and what pushing yourself in this challenge would mean to you. Keep in mind that a good challenge pushes you, but it doesn’t require that you cross a finish line.
The Benefits of Challenging Yourself: Reach Your Full Potential

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michael Easter's "The Comfort Crisis" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Comfort Crisis summary:

  • Why a modern, comfortable lifestyle is bad for health and happiness
  • Why discomforts such as being in nature, fasting, and exercising are important
  • Tips on how to make discomfort your friend

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.