The reason I keep my New Year’s Resolutions is because I choose a major challenge. Framing is everything. Courage is one of my core values, reason being that I know I am a physical coward, and it’s my never-ending quest to vanquish that puny weakling inside. Basically all I’m doing each year is selecting an interesting variation on that game. How do I voluntarily pitch myself into an arena where my comfort zone is nowhere to be seen?
Why would any sensible person do such a thing?
Quite simply, the further away I am from anything I enjoy, anything that comes to me naturally, anything relaxing or fun, the more I stretch my capabilities. Over time, my comfort zone has gotten much bigger. The biggest advantage of this is that far fewer things seem scary or uncomfortable. Of course, that creates the disadvantage that I have to search harder to get the same sort of gains.
It was easy when I was 19. I enrolled in ballroom dance lessons. As a painfully shy person, this was a good choice. Now I’m officially a “competent social dancer.” I can waltz, rumba, tango, fox trot, swing, cha-cha, merengue, hustle, and salsa dance. Who knew, right?
I went back to school and got my bachelor’s degree. Then I got my driver’s license, still far and away the hardest thing I’ve ever done. A few years later, my challenge was to read 500 books in a year. One year I learned to read Cyrillic characters, impressive until you find out that I can’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. One year I chose distance running, which led to a mud run and, eventually, a marathon. Then I went after public speaking, probably the second-hardest challenge I have undertaken.
This year, it’s martial arts. I signed up and started taking lessons in Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing.
Cool story, dude.
Yeah, no. Let me explain just why this is so challenging for me.
I was always one of the smallest kids in my grade, and definitely the least coordinated, slowest, weakest, and most clueless about any and all sports. Last picked for every team, hit in the head with every possible ball except the medicine ball, tackled into the mud in soccer by someone on my own team. I grew up to experience many years of chronic pain and fatigue, thyroid disease, migraine, and fibromyalgia. To say I was never an athlete would be a grave understatement.
I’m not an athlete, I’m a book-reading, bird-watching nerd of the first order.
I’m also 5’4” and I weigh a buck and a quarter. I wear a size zero.
My wrists measure 5 1/4.”
They just put me in a “child’s large” t-shirt.
On several occasions in my life, a male friend or relative has simply picked me up and unceremoniously tossed me over his shoulder. They take one look at me and decide that I’m portable. No dignity in sight.
With this new martial arts challenge, I’m pushing myself in several ways. While I do all right with endurance running, that is physically almost the exact opposite of this type of training. Running is aerobic, martial arts is anaerobic. Distance running tends to lead to strong hamstrings but weak glutes, quads, hip flexors, and core, something I felt literally within the first sixty seconds of my first Krav Maga class. Mostly lower body, running doesn’t really set you up for the upper body demands of martial arts. The mindset of distance running requires a high tolerance for boredom, moving along one axis at one speed for hours at a time. Martial arts is unpredictable activity over a wide range of motion. Distance running is for loners, martial arts requires interaction with partners and opponents. The only thing these disciplines have in common, really, is that they’re both impact sports, in that they can both build bone density. I’m getting feedback from the instructors and my fellow students that I have a good mindset for this type of training, but grit, humility, and perseverance are nearly all I’m bringing to the table.
In other words, walking the challenge path has brought me emotional strength that I never otherwise had.
What else is challenging about being a middle-aged martial arts novice?
DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness
The shock of impact, falling and grappling and being thrown onto the mat
Being triggered in certain positions and having trauma flashbacks
The humiliation your ego feels at realizing that your fitness level is the lowest in the room
Feeling your age, especially in comparison to kids barely out of high school
The intellectual challenge of learning new jargon
Unfamiliar equipment, not even knowing which end is up
Fear of social isolation, when all the other students know each other and you’re the new kid
Low proprioception, being uncoordinated and not mirroring the moves very well
Pushing your physical stamina to the point that you genuinely start to black out
They tell me: “This is martial arts. If you don’t bleed, faint, or puke at least once, you’re not trying hard enough.”
It’s going to get worse. That’s sort of the point. I fully expect to be hit in the face, get a fat lip, possibly get a black eye, cut up my knuckles, have mat burn and bruises on every limb, possibly even get a tooth knocked out. Setting up my emotional expectations for the very worst helps me to appreciate that most days, it truly isn’t that bad.
These are the sorts of things I say as I’m getting to know everyone:
Any goal that takes less than four years isn’t worth doing. I’m here for humility and self-discipline. If I don’t feel weak, slow, frail, clumsy, uncoordinated, humiliated, dumb, scared, and out of my league, then I’m in the wrong place.
Challenge is where triumph comes from. There’s no other way to get that astonishing feeling of having overcome something, having utterly prevailed and emerged victorious. The emotion that makes you thrust your arms over your head in jubilation, that doesn’t come from doing the ordinary.
The challenge path is the hardest path, and that’s why it’s the most rewarding. Start out expecting to be terrible, to be objectively the worst, in the bottom 10% of performance. Pick something that makes your knees tremble and you’re on track. Learn to love those feelings of desperate uselessness, one scintilla above the line that says, “I obviously don’t belong here and I should drop out.” The better you are at everything else, the less tolerant you tend to become of being at beginner level, or doing anything radically different from your strengths. Even mediocrity starts to feel like failure. On the challenge path, you follow one spoke that leads directly away from your hub, off in a wildly different direction than the other paths you’ve beaten. This is how you build yourself a bigger world.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.