“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” —Seneca

Whether sitting in a car park watching giant waves feather as they roll towards land, or peering over a thick ledge after paddling our hearts out, fear and challenge are a core part of the surfing lifestyle. To improve our surfing and evolve our style we need to seek out and embrace experiences that we find challenging and even frightening.

Surfers understand the importance of pushing ourselves beyond our perceived limits. It is in these zones of adversity that we find flow state, experience the thrill of the ride and satisfy our desire for progressionfor a while, at least.

Over the course of our lives, we all face countless challenges. Whether it is showing patience in the face of minor difficulties, handling conflicts with loved ones, or figuring out where our passions truly lie, life presents us with a string of ever-changing obstacles. And like the surfer dropping in on wave after wave, there will be times when we conquer a challenge with ease—and times when we stumble and have to get up and try again. 

Any time we have to push past our own limitations or work through our discomfort, we are grappling with a challenge. Some will be more intimidating than others. But no matter what, a challenge always presents an opportunity to grow and to prove to ourselves that we are capable of more than we previously thought possible.

Why are we basically wired to need—and sometimes purposefully pursue—challenges in life? Challenge is an integral aspect of the human condition, and thriving off challenge seems to be a requirement if we want to reach new heights.

A good life is defined by improving our response to challenge, and improving the quality of the challenges we accept.

The Science Behind Struggle

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” —Helen Keller

What happens to the brain and body when faced with a challenge? Why are we often able to do things we never thought we could do before when we’re forced into new circumstances? It’s because facing a challenge actually has a physical impact on the way the body and mind work. In order to do something we’ve never done before and get out of our comfort zone, we need to enter this physiological state.

Fight or Flight

The fight or flight reaction developed in human beings millions of years ago, when we were facing very different kinds of challenges. If we are a caveman faced with a saber-tooth tiger who wants to turn us into lunch, we’ve got two options: fight for our life, or run away as fast as possible. The freeze response is also a possibility, but unlikely to be effective in the face of a big cat (or a large wave!).

Most humans don’t need to worry about being eaten by apex predators anymore. For surfers, it’s not so simple. If you’re a wave pool surfer then you’ll be fine, but for many of us around the world, sharks are a very real, though statistically unlikely threat. To put things in perspective, we’re far more likely to activate our sympathetic nervous system – fight or flight – in response to other surfers than as a result of sharks. 

This is the same for much of our lives. Biologically, whenever we’re in a stressful situation, our bodies react in a predictable way, even if the threat is abstract, such as receiving an angry email from our boss. In response, our body prepares us to either physically fight the threat, or to back away from the situation as quickly as possible. In reality, we might not want to do either, but when we’re facing a challenge, this is how the body still reacts.

So, what actually happens when the fight or flight reaction kicks in? First, the hypothalamus sends a “distress signal” to the autonomic nervous system. This causes our heart rate to speed up,  blood pressure to briefly rise, and blood glucose levels to increase. Our pupils dilate, we may feel our muscles tense up, and our blood vessels constrict in order to direct more blood to the muscles. And when we’re under stress for an extended period of time, our digestive and immune systems will actually be suppressed so that the body can conserve more energy for dealing with the threat.

While extended periods of stress can be harmful for the body and mind, going into this state for a limited period of time allows us to build resilience and improve our skills. This is a reliable pathway to high performance: becoming hyper focused on a challenge, calming the fear response and working with complete focus towards the desired result.

Why Do We Need Challenges?

It seems that in order for human beings to reach their full potential, we have to be up against a challenge. In fact, you could say that we’ve evolved to “need” challenges. Challenges momentarily change the way our minds and bodies function, and when we prove to ourselves that we can do something new, we’re able to do it again and again—and then we can set our sights on new, bigger goals. Basically, we have to have an external reason to go past our usual limits in order to find out how far we really can go.

We may never fully understand why we essentially evolved to “need” challenges. They may not be a need in the same sense that we need oxygen, water, or food, but if we want to reach self actualization, consistently facing and overcoming challenges—and learning from our failures—is necessary.

Challenges and Philosophy

“We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” —Seneca

Sometimes when we face a challenge, we may need some reassurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to be okay in the end. At times like these, we can look towards timeless perspectives from philosophers and other great thinkers to let us know that we are on the right path.

The Stoic Perspective on Challenges

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that teaches us that virtue is the only good worth pursuing, and that true happiness lies in radical acceptance of the present moment without applying value judgments or comparing oneself to others.

When it comes to facing challenges, the stoic teachings can be a valuable guide to navigating tough situations. Stoicism says that we must learn to manage our fear rather than trying to avoid difficult situations altogether. The problem is rarely the situation itself—instead, it is our own emotional reaction that causes us distress. Often, our reaction is worse than whatever we are up against. If we can understand how to process these reactions and use them to fuel our success, we can face challenges with confidence rather than fear.

How can we learn to manage these emotions in a healthy way? By actively choosing to face challenges. The stoics taught that practice is essential—when we practice at a new skill, we learn how to use the fight or flight reaction to our advantage. The more we practice, the less fearful we will be when we have to put our skills to the test. Like the new surfer who is still learning how to catch a wave, we all need to get out there and put ourselves to the test. 

The Hero’s Journey

Whether you think of a novel, a play, a film, or even a poem or song, almost every great work of art is centered around someone facing a challenge. We are enthralled by stories of people who overcome great challenges. They inspire us and give us faith that we, too, can conquer the difficult obstacles in our lives. In fact, most of these great works focus on a general plot line that can essentially be summed up as “The Hero’s Journey.”

The hero’s journey is a term that was first used by Joseph Campbell, a literature professor who studied comparative mythology, religion, and more generally, the human experience as it is captured in classic and contemporary stories. The hero’s journey refers to the path we can all choose to follow throughout our lives—the call to accept a challenge and allow it to change our lives and our sense of who we truly are. Why does seeing the hero’s journey play out on screen or in the pages of our favorite novels stir something inside us? It’s because we recognize that we, too, can have our own hero’s journeys, if we are ready to rise to the occasion.

What Do Religions Say About Challenge?

“In a day when you don’t come across any problems, you can be sure that you are on the wrong path.” —Swami Vivekanada

Whether you consider yourself religious or not, many people find wisdom in spiritual teachings about the value of facing challenges. Every major world religion has something to say about why we must continuously face challenges, what we gain from overcoming them, and how we can approach adversity with dignity.

Christianity

The Bible makes it clear that challenges are unavoidable, but challenges are merely opportunities in disguise—opportunities to grow closer to God, to develop a deeper trust in God, and to use the talents that God has given you. While Christians do not believe that we can know every detail of God’s plans for each of us, they do believe that the challenges we face are divinely ordained.

There is also a common belief that God will never give someone a challenge that they cannot handle. Therefore, although we cannot help feeling stressed, worried, or anxious, we can rest assured that these challenges are placed before us to help us reach our full potential and carry out God’s bigger plans. Perhaps James 1:2-4 sums up this perspective best: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”

Islam

Just like Christianity, Islam teaches that trials and challenges in life are inevitable. So how do we get through them and come out the other side stronger? We must focus on the “fruit” of the challenge—in other words, instead of getting bogged down in the negative aspects of our current situation, we should direct our attentions to the future fruits of our labor. How will a challenge benefit in the long run? How can challenges help us become the best versions of ourselves?

Through the Islamic perspective, challenges can actually seen as a form of blessings. This Hadith, spoken by the messenger Abu Hurayrah, explains that challenges mean something better is on the horizon: “He whom Allah intends good, He makes him to suffer from some affliction.”

Hinduism

Hinduism has a rather unique take on the nature of challenges. In Hindu theology, our challenges are not necessarily granted to us by a divine being. Rather, we actually choose the challenges that we face in this lifetime.

Hinduism states that after someone passes away, their soul lives on and goes through the process of reincarnation: they are born again as another being. Their actions and thoughts determine what they will go through in their current life and their future lifetimes. We all must face a certain set of challenges in order for our souls to learn lessons that stretch across lifetimes.  

Buddhism

Buddhist teachings remind us that we all face the same challenges, more or less. No matter what we are going through, we are never truly alone—there is always someone who understands the pain that we’re feeling. The Buddha taught that the greatest challenge we face is never against another person—rather, the greatest challenges that we encounter are the times when we have to challenge ourselves.

The Buddha also believed that when we do change ourselves for the better in response to a challenge, we get to enjoy some of our sweetest victories. A victory within the self is better than a victory over a competitor. In the Buddha’s own words, “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.”

Facing Challenges on the Water

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” —John Kabat-Zinn

Out of all the athletic pursuits, surfing presents one of the biggest challenges to the self. We must learn to read the ocean, to face our own fears, and to push ourself to the absolute limit. Surfing is a mental, physical, and emotional endeavor. Catching a wave may look easy, but it is far from effortless.

The greatest surfers of all time learned to embrace the challenges that surfing presents, even when they felt fear creeping in. Whether you personally love to paddle out, or you rarely dip a toe in the water, we can all learn something from legendary surfers.

Laird Hamilton

Laird Hamilton is not just known for being an incredible surfer—he is also an innovator who has revolutionized the sport in many ways. In fact, he’s been called “the sport’s most complete surfer.” He was the creative mind behind tow-in surfing, stand up paddle boarding, and hydrofoil boarding. In challenging situations, Hamilton doesn’t just see opportunities for personal improvement—he sees possibilities that haven’t been explored yet. He sees a chance to change the sport of surfing for future generations.

It’s easy to see why the documentary based on Laird’s career was titled Take Every Wave. Hamilton has done just that—not just in the water, but in life itself. He’s proven that taking on the challenge (and taking on the wave) is worth it every time, and even though you’re sure to suffer a few wipeouts, it will all be worth it in the end.

Mark Foo

Mark Foo was one of the best of the big wave surfers ever to live. He was the kind of surfer who would drop in on waves others wouldn’t dare surfing in their minds. He had a deep respect for the power of the ocean, and he understood that taking on the challenge of true big wave surfing came with serious risks.

Foo once said, “It is not tragic to die doing something you love,” and he truly believed in those words. He was so dedicated to the sport of surfing, and so unwilling to back down from the unique challenges that big wave surfing presented, that he was ready to chase his passion until his dying day. His words turned out to be prophetic: while surfing the world famous break at Mavericks in 1994, he drowned after attempting to surf the wave that would be his last. But Foo knew this was always a possibility—he once said, “To get the ultimate thrill, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.”

Most of us won’t have to face challenges as extreme as the challenges that Foo willingly chose to face. But his fearless attitude can serve as a reminder that if we want to achieve great things, we have to accept that we will also need to deal with extreme challenge.

Final Thoughts

“Waves are not measured in feet and inches, they are measured in increments of fear.” —Buzzy Trent

There are times in life when you’ll feel as though you’re coasting along with nothing stopping you—and there are times when you’ll feel as though the waves just keep crashing, hardly allowing you to come up for air. When we come to understand that challenges will always be a part of life, and we accept them rather than expending our energy on avoiding them, we can learn to ride these waves to their full potential.

Through deliberate practice and incremental progress, we can improve the quality of the waves we ride and achieve whatever it is we desire.