CHALLENGES – FRIENDS OR ENEMIES?

WORDS: JELENA FU SHANGHAI

Learning to tie shoe laces or how to read and write, making new friends in high school, dealing with an annoying teacher, getting good grades, resolving a problem with a boss, raising a kid, overcoming heartbreak, fighting an illness, adapting to a new country, paying off a bank loan, trying to find a new job, winning a match, etc. – these are some of the challenges people are facing in their lives.

If we look deeper, challenges are with us all the time, in childhood, adulthood, and when we are old. They follow us through life every step of the way. There are small ones, big ones, life-changing ones, ones that become routine (like waking up for work on Monday morning), or those that are so grand and frightening that we choose to avoid them (they do tend to come back though). Challenges are an unavoidable part of our existence; they transcend countries, cultures, professions, age, and titles.

Our attitude to challenges is what differs and what determines how we perceive them and what we do with them. Children seem to be excited by challenging encounters; they take up new and difficult tasks with an open mind, a lot of enthusiasm, and they enjoy the whole process of trying, failing, learning, and succeeding. It’s only in kindergarten where you can hear a loud “Yaaaaay!” when a teachers says “Let’s do some math!”

As we mature, it seems that we become less inclined to view challenges as something fun and exciting. Instead we rename them into problems and approach them as something either cumbersome or frightening, something to be “dealt with” rather then enjoyed. A noted Stanford University professor, Carol Dweck, noticed in her extensive research about success that people have one of the two specific sets of self-beliefs or mindsets: a fixed mindset – people who think that success is based on innate, or inborn, abilities and that intelligence does not change; and growth mindset – people who believe that success is based on effort and continual learning and that intelligence can change. Mindset is what we believe about ourselves and our potential and translates directly into our attitude toward challenges. Are challenges testing our intelligence and proving us dumb and incompetent or are they an opportunity to learn and improve ourselves? Are they friends or enemies?

A Serbian tennis player, Novak Djokovic, comes to mind as a person who embodies growth mindset. According to Wikipedia “this has been his best season and one of the best seasons in the Open Era. Selected achievements/records from this season are: Winning 3 major titles, becoming only the 3rd man to reach all 4 major finals, a record 6 Masters 1000 tournaments, reaching the final of 8 Masters 1000 tournaments, reaching 15 consecutive finals, a record 31 top 10 match victories.” Although he personally says there is no special secret to his success, he admits to “playing mind games with himself.” For example, he imagines that the audience is shouting “Nole”, when they are shouting “Roger”, he takes defeats as a chance to improve and work harder, he bounces back to victory even when the match is nearly lost, he looks forward to difficult matches and challenging opponents, and always finds room for improvement in his game.

We can definitely learn a lot about challenges from children and successful people around us:
– approach challenges with enthusiasm and open mind, “difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” (Unknown)
– enjoy the process, “challenges are what make life interesting, overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” (Joshua J. Marine)
– take them as an opportunity to learn and improve “if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” (Fred Devito)

Challenges are our life-long companions with many important functions: to push us forward, make us change the course, push our limits, teach us something new, get us to slow down, or stop. We can do so many different things with challenges: run away and ignore them, cover them up, or somehow cope and deal with them, but we can also choose to face them, accept them, rise to them, and the best of all, learn from them. It is us who give them power to act as friends or enemies.