Provision #611: Challenge Yourself

Laser Provision

Do you know the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”? Goldilocks tried one bowl of porridge and it was too hot. She tried another and it was too cold. The third bowl, however, was just right and she ate it all up. Those are the kinds of challenges we want in life and work. We don’t want them to be too hard; we also don’t want them to be too easy. We want them to be just right. It takes intentionality and planning to design such challenges, but that’s not beyond us. Indeed, we humans have a knack for creating such games. This Provision will encourage you to make it so.

LifeTrek Provision

Recently I was in New Jersey to facilitate a client off-site meeting along with my LifeTrek colleague, Erika Jackson. At the end of the first day, we went out to dinner with the management team. It’s a good thing Erika was along, since we got into a conversation about television shows that was definitely out of my league. I confess to not being much of a television watcher, other than the occasional newscast, sporting event, or movie. I’m way out of my league when the conversation turns to primetime shows, but Erika was able to help me get through with a minimum of embarrassment.

It became clear that two kinds of shows were quite popular: dramatic serials and reality shows. Both were popular topics over dinner, although the former definitely had more fans. The reality shows that were mentioned had, as their common theme, an element of competition. In one way or another, people were challenging themselves and being judged as to the quality of their performance. From dancing to losing weight to feats of stamina, strength, synergy, or skill, ordinary people are putting it all on the line to be deemed the winner.

Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we push ourselves to be the best we can possibly be, to step into something new, to reach beyond our perceived limits, and to play a bigger game? Simply put: because it’s fun and rewarding. Challenge is a universal human need. We may need to feel safe, but we also need to feel stretched. It’s neither satisfying nor fulfilling to always do what we have always done, no matter how well we do it. Such ruts lead to boredom, lethargy, listlessness, and ennui. The human mind is nothing if it’s not a stimulation factory. We challenge ourselves because we can.

Regular readers of Provisions know that I am a long-distance runner. That means I run 25-55 miles a week, every week of every month of every year. That’s about 4-9 hours a week of running, not counting the time I spend warming up, cooling down, and doing other forms of exercise such as cycling and strength training. In the course of a year, that adds up to about 22 continuous days of running and working out.

Now I mention that routine not to show off or to impress you with my athleticism. Indeed, I am not very competitive when it comes to my finish times. But I do put in the hours and I manage to enjoy myself along the way, much to the surprise of those who do not share my passion for long-distance running. “What do you think about along the way?” is a common refrain. Although every runner is different, the answer in most cases is how to make the run both interesting and enjoyable.

For an elite few, that has to do with running winning times. For many, that has to do with running faster and stronger than last week, last month, or last year. I went through that phase when I first got it into running. I was playing the game of how fast can I run. Now, however, I challenge myself with other games. Every year I run the Baltimore Marathon, for example, as the 4:45 pace team leader. In the months leading up to the race, I play the game of how steady can I run (and I have a reputation for finishing in perfect or near-perfect times). It makes the training and the race both interesting and enjoyable.

Two of my favorite games are the discover new routes and the predict the distance games. I particularly enjoy discovering new routes, which is made all the more challenging when I start and finish at the same spot. One would think there is not much to discover just outside your front door, but au contraire! There is always another way to go, especially when you combine the two games with the assistance of a GPS-enabled training watch. What new route will turn out to be exactly 5 miles? Or exactly 30 kilometers? Or exactly anything? The combinations are literally infinite, which makes for a perfect mental / physical challenge. The stimulation factory can run wild.

And then there’s that pesky computer I was telling you about in my Provision on Autonomy Needs. Having bought myself and set up a new computer which is working just fine, thank you, I now had the luxury of experimenting on the old computer with reckless abandon since I was no longer depending on it for my day-to-day functioning. Talk about a computer aficionado’s delight! I could now play the game of what’s wrong with this computer without any time constraints or performance anxiety.

It took a couple of weeks and numerous dead ends, but my new-found freedom led eventually to the discovery of a problem with the CPU’s configuration and heat sink. The reason the computer was dying was because the CPU was overheating relative to its core settings. Using a CPU temperature monitor, a free software utility, I saw how the CPU was steadily rising in temperature until • boom! • the computer shut down as though someone had pulled the plug out of the wall socket. Solving that problem solved the computer problem, or so it appears, which means I now have a nice backup computer and an even nicer new computer. 🙂

The point, again, is not to boast of my abilities (a smarter guy than me would have figured this out before he bought a new computer!); the point is to illustrate the human need for challenges. In a sense, all of life is a game. That’s not to say life is silly or unimportant. It’s rather to say that we frame our life projects as interesting and enjoyable challenges.

What games are you playing in life right now? Thankfully, I’m done with the what’s wrong with this computer game (at least for now). But in the past week my wife and I have had our book on coaching in schools accepted for publication by Jossey-Bass, so now we’re playing the write a great book before the end of August game. Between then and now we’ll be playing many other games, both personal and professional. Some of those include the go to conferences game, the get new clients game, the connect with friends game, and the plan vacations game.

It’s all a game because they all represent interesting and enjoyable challenges. Defining, playing, and winning the games of life are what bring people to coaching. People want to talk about the games they are playing, or not playing, in order to clarify their intentions, understand their feelings, and master their moves. Here are some of the games my clients are playing right now:

  • The lose weight and get in shape game.
  • The find a new job game.
  • The get along with my co-workers game.
  • The make my marriage work game.
  • The care for an ailing family member game.
  • The organize my office game.
  • The sleep better at night game.
  • The manage my medical condition game.
  • The connect with respect game.
  • The find a new partner game.
  • The take time for myself game.

As in the discovery of new routes to run, there is no limit to the games people play. We challenge ourselves because we can; doing so makes life both interesting and enjoyable. Unfortunately, it can also make life both distracting and stressful. That’s what happens when we try to play too many games or too challenging of games. The trick is to find the sweet spot where we are neither over stimulated nor under stimulated by the number and nature of the games we are playing.

Hitting that sweet spot is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. Athletes call it “being in the zone”. It means we are totally engaged in a desired pursuit that pushes us to, but not beyond, the limit of our abilities. When we find ourselves in that condition, we forget about time and do whatever it takes to be successful. We find such activities interesting and enjoyable, but not necessarily pleasurable in the moment. That’s because flow activities are often very difficult and challenging. They require our full attention. We cannot do a good job with them if we are distracted by other pressures or commitments.

The pleasure often comes after the fact, as many athletes will attest. Ask endurance athletes what’s the best part of their workouts and they will often reply, “Finishing.” That’s when you experience the relief and satisfaction of a job well done. The challenge has been met and the work has been completed. That’s when the endorphins really take hold.

There’s no way to get to that point, however, apart from playing the game. As the saying goes, “Those who do not play, cannot win”. The key is to design a winnable game. That’s what I’ve done with my running. I’ve designed winnable games that I find both doable and enjoyable. I regularly experience flow at these games, which keeps me coming back for more. Mastery experiences build on themselves.

So, too, do frustrating experiences build on themselves. Once we conclude that we cannot be successful at something, we stop enjoying the challenge and we seldom go back for more. A big part of coaching is assisting clients to design winnable games. We have to scale and frame the challenges appropriately. But it doesn’t take a coach to figure this out. We can do it for ourselves once we understand what we are doing. There’s no way I can win the run a 3-hour marathon game. Taking on that challenge would neither be interesting nor enjoyable. It would be frustrating, counterproductive, and unnecessary.

That’s what I hope to assist my clients to discover. There’s no point in banging away at an unwinnable game. If someone asks you to play such a game, then it’s time to set your boundaries and speak your truth. If you ask yourself to play an unwinnable game, then it’s time to rescale and reframe the challenges appropriately. Doing so is the secret to success and to being fully alive. It is what makes the difference between those who greet the day with zest and enthusiasm and those who find it hard to get going.

Coaching Inquiries: What games are you playing? Do they challenge you enough, not enough, or too much? Do you find yourself bored or anxious? How could you change the games you are playing in order to experience flow more often? Who could be your partner in designing and playing better games?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..

I enjoy reading your Provisions each week. I look forward to them, first thing on Sunday morning. Thanks for all you do!

Thanks so much for your ministry of health and healing! I am part of a fairly new Health and Wellness Committee and my vision is that all UM committees, institutions, events, and members would recognize that all of Christ’s ministry was health ministry, that discipleship means stewardship of our bodies and the earth, and that the scriptures need to be incorporated at the cellular level. With that comes the hope, faith, and energy for tapping into the most pure form of what is right with us!

I was wanting to know what would be the first steps that I would need to take in becoming a Life Coach? Are there legitimate schools to get a degree or a certificate in Life Coaching? What qualifies someone as a Life Coach? I feel and I have been told that I give good solid advice and that this field may be something that I should look into. (Ed. Note: For information on coach training, visit or 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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