Nathanael Garrett Novosel, March 6 2024

On Challenge

Everyone thinks they just want to live the easy life: being waited on hand and foot, eating junk food and playing video games all day, or living a life without work. People say they want that—no matter how much evidence you provide to the contrary: people who hit the lottery are often miserable or lose it all; animals sit around all day and eat food and still want to go outside and run; and elderly people live years longer when they have responsibility in their lives versus when they don’t. So what is it about challenge, work, and effort, and how do we both avoid it and seek it?

Yes, it is true that humans and animals are energy efficient, trying to exert as little energy as possible to survive. It’s why muscles get smaller if they are not used, human gaits are amazingly streamlined through evolution, and animals lie around or hibernate for much of their lifespans. However, they also have instincts to stay fit for the purposes of both survival and procreation. Dogs play Fetch as practice for hunting. There is a famous video of a domesticated beaver building a dam in a hallway with household items for no logical reason—purely instinct. Humans play team sports. These activities are all meant to ensure that the animals can thrive in their environments, and human versions of them are about building social bonds, attracting mates, staying physically fit, and developing useful life and professional skills. This strange balance between efficiency (sometimes called “laziness”) and capability (sometimes called “a waste of time”) is one of the most fascinating of human life.

Unfortunately, the efficiency side can easily take hold in modern life. Unlike in early times where you needed to be ever vigilant for threats and constantly working toward the next meal, today we can hit a button and have food arrive at our doors. Human brains’ reward systems were meant to incentivize positive behaviors, such as attracting a mate to have pleasurable sex or becoming a good hunter to eat delicious food. The brain’s neurochemical system is what makes sex and food enjoyable experiences. However, it incentivized working just enough to get what you wanted, and now that it’s easy to get the basics…people can easily sleep, eat, drink, urinate, defecate, pick their dopamine-inducing activity of choice such as television or social media, and repeat daily.

I once exclaimed at a seeming contradiction, “Many people think that chickens living inside a giant building eating food until they die with nothing else to do is torture…and yet more and more of our population voluntarily chooses this life!!! Chickens are living the dream for many people!” The idea that finding a way to live off others’ labor (i.e., government subsidies) and eat fast food and watch TV all day is an approach that millions of people take to their lives can either seem obvious (“Why not? That’s what anyone would do!”) or dystopian (see the second half of Wall-E; I still consider Wall-E’s depiction of humans using advanced technology to be the best realistic sci-fi prediction ever). Either way, it might appear that the ideal/optimal/desired end state for all humans is just to find a steady dopamine source and ride it until they die—much like the famous experiment on rats where they had an electrode attached to the pleasure sensors of their brains and they hit the lever stimulating it until they died rather than go eat food to continue living. And yet it’s not (fortunately)…

There are many things going wrong in these dystopian scenarios, from addictions to poor upbringings to missing ethics to mental health issues. Since we can’t go through those all in detail in this post, we’ll do a quick summary of examples of what might be going on in these situations. If someone is raised by parents who did not work, ate food, and plopped themselves and their children in front of the TV all day, the children’s brains will quickly become accustomed to that lifestyle: fast food, lack of work, and constant entertainment. The resulting dopamine addiction can be hard to break, especially when raised that way and it also would require a complete cultural and personality overhaul. Additionally, feeling like they don’t have to do anything for anyone else while they benefit from others is a lack of ethics regarding reciprocity, and other factors like depression, low self-esteem, etc. can cause people to not be motivated to do anything. Sometimes, it can be several or all of those; in any case, the reality is that the resulting low-effort lifestyle isn’t normal or healthy and, contrary to popular belief, these people are not happy but are rather addicted or escaping from some tough realities of life.

On the contrary, most healthy people do the opposite of this: they seek challenge. They have and raise children; they work hard and strive to get better jobs or make more money; they try to improve their physical, mental, and social prowess. No one is perfect, of course, so there is often the hardworking single father who eats terribly or the parent without a social life…but the point is that people actually want to get better. This can be taken to extremes as well, such as rock climbers who free solo giant rock faces or speed runners who complete video games that normally take hours in minutes. But the common thread on this side is that people actually seek to challenge themselves, whether it be in their jobs, their mating or social abilities, their teaching or parenting, or their hobbies. In fact, boredom or life dissatisfaction can push people to achieve amazing feats, from holding their breath for over 10 minutes to landing on the moon. There are truly humans on both ends of the spectrum of the “easy life” (which, if you’ve ever seen a large person’s life when all they do is watch TV and eat fast food, it is decidedly not “easy”) and “stay hard” life (e.g., David Goggins).

We all know what causes people to drift toward the easy life: pleasure. It might be due to underlying trauma or a variety of other factors, but the pleasure is the direct cause of what we’ll call “predominantly energy-efficient behavior”. So what is causing the other side, and why would someone feel good from effort? Meaning.

For those who have read this blog before or the book that instigated it, you’ll know that the meaning of life is growth. I know some people (yes, I bang my head at negative reviews from people who read the chapter names for the “answers” and started writing their own half-baked opinions) believe that there’s something else: to love, to serve others, to laugh, to be happy, etc. (and I explain in detail how those are all examples of parts of the growth process in other posts), but growth is the heart of it. All living organisms—since the first instance of cell reproduction—have engaged in behaviors that led to growth. The ones that survived, of course, evolved complex motivational systems to get them to perform growth-enabling behaviors. That’s why it’s both the fundamental motivating force behind everything we do—whether we realize it or not (i.e., we are distracted by the reward system, “pleasure”)—and also the thing we do that gives us a sense of significance and success in life. Growth is the process through which life transitions from a current state to an improved future state. That’s why people seek challenge: they want the feeling of becoming better.

Now, there are a lot of reasons for doing this: becoming better to feel good about oneself, to attain social status, to be an attractive mate, or to be in a position to do even greater things or provide for loved ones in the future. But the end result is the same: people seek a greater challenge in their lives to improve themselves. Professional athletes want to compete against the best to see how good they can be. Competition can bring out the best performance in people. Some people just compete with themselves, seeking to become better than they were the day before. No matter what their process, most humans have the desire for challenge in their lives. It is usually only the issues described earlier such as diet, addictions, or health factors that cause people to not try to challenge themselves to improve their lives.

So that’s why people seek challenge: to grow and become better, they need to develop their skills and, therefore, need something more difficult to practice on. It is no different from a dog playing fetch or a beaver making a dam. We are all hard-wired to better our lives. If you want more meaning in your life or are wondering why you are feeling listless or “stuck in a rut” in life, seek a challenge. In challenge, you grow. In growth, you find meaning. To maximize the meaning of that challenge to you, make sure that it’s something you care about. By combining a strong desire to improve and the belief in your ability to do so, you become a very, very driven person who will be up for the next challenge in your life—whether that challenge is thrust upon you or, like discussed here, you identify and strive for of your own volition. Go forth, and conquer (that challenge)!

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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