“How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” Tyler Durden asks right before welcoming a punch in the face. It’s a good question. Until you’ve taken that punch to the face, you never quite know how you’re going to respond.
This doesn’t need to be a fight on a deserted street. It could be any of the punches that life decides to throw your way. Those fights — that adversity — are inevitable for anyone who’s trying to make a difference in the world.
If you’re pushing the edge, you’re bound to encounter a fight of some kind. If you’re advocating change, you’ll inevitably face resistance. And if you’re putting yourself out there in the world, there’s always going to be people that try to improve their own standing at the expense of yours.
We’ll all need to deal with these fights sooner or later. And sooner is often better than later. Encountering adversity early on helps build the resilience needed to persist in the face of future challenges.
If you have two people, one that’s fought and clawed her way to success and another that was born on third base, who do you trust more to come through future problems? If the best predictor of future performance is past behavior, I’ll take someone who’s been through a scrap or two and learned how to handle herself any day.
We love to tell stories about people who’ve failed only to come back to great success. J.K. Rowling went through round after round of rejection before someone recognized the brilliance of Harry Potter. Thomas Edison famously found thousands of ways to not make a light bulb. And Walt Disney was fired from his first job for not being creative. He’d later credit this, and other, adversity for his strength,
“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
Yet for all of the people who overcome failure, many others simply yield to it. They don’t fail so much as just give up.
This choice — overcome or yield — is one that we all get to make. Do you want to roll with these punches and come back swinging? Or just fall apart and curl up in a ball?
Whether it’s a round in an underground fight club or any of life’s challenges, this answer depends on how well you can take these punches. Fortunately, you survive them all in pretty much the same way.
If you stiffen up before a punch, it’s going to hurt even more. You want your muscles loose and flexible. It’s the same when you’re battling any of life’s challenges. Relax. Take a breath. And keep yourself from freezing up.
Remember that no matter how bad things are right now, you still have the capacity to make them worse. In fact, it’s rarely the first hit that brings people down, but the subsequent ones when they fail to respond. If you freeze up and stop thinking clearly, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Relax, gain control of the situation, and minimize the damage.
It’s also worth remembering that most of the battles we face each day aren’t matters of life and death. To the best of my knowledge, no one’s ever died from a harshly worded email.
Keep Eye Contact
It’s the punches that you don’t see that are most likely to put you on the ground. Unless it’s Tyson Fury. Then every punch will put you on the ground. But for most people, if you can see it coming, you can prepare yourself for it.
It’s never been easier to only focus on arguments that support your story. The internet can be a confirmation bias machine — preferentially providing you with evidence that supports your perspective while downplaying anything that counters it. This tendency puts you at a severe disadvantage, similar to closing your eyes to an oncoming punch. Because when you can’t see the arguments of your opposition, you can’t defend yourself against them.
Keep your eyes open to your opposition. Understand the counterarguments to your position so you can answer them. Understand the weaknesses to your methods so you can mitigate them. Understand the tactics of your opposition so you can be ready for them.
Strengthen Your Neck
Boxers put a lot of effort into strengthening their necks. It lets them take a hit and keep their head from whiplashing around like a bobble head..
Building muscles of any kind takes practice. The more you practice taking criticism, confronting issues, and dealing with life’s struggles, the stronger you’ll be in handling them. In Seneca’s millennia-old timeless advice, “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
The better you can handle these punches, the faster the flywheel spins. As you improve your ability to deal with life’s issues, you take on stronger challenges. And your resilience continues to strengthen in return.
In this way, every problem, every punch, every battle is simply more preparation for the next one. Use it. Recognize the value in confronting those situations and building that resiliency. As Herman Hesse reflected in If the War Goes On…,
“Might your bitter pain not be the voice of destiny, might that voice not become sweet once you understand it?”
Roll with the Punches
If you try to punch a seasoned boxer, you can never seem to hit them square. Well, maybe you can. I can’t. They’re constantly moving, limiting any chance to get solid contact.
As life throws punches at you, it’s important to keep moving. People love telling you to fail fast. But failing fast is only good if you can learn from it. And learning’s only worthwhile if you know what you’re going to do differently next time.
Keep moving. Understand what happened and be specific in recognizing how you’re going to move forward in a better way. You can’t control the punches that come your way. But you can control how you react to them. Keep moving.
Watch for Power Punches
An experienced boxer won’t try to block every punch, they only worry about the strong punches. A short jab won’t do as much damage as a hook to the chin.
In life, it’s important to pick your battles. As criticism and feedback come in from people you don’t respect, ask yourself whether you need to care about their opinions. As problems come up unrelated to your main focus, ask yourself whether the battle is worth the energy you’ll need to do it.
Don’t wear yourself down blocking punches that don’t matter. You won’t have the strength to handle the ones that do.
Keep your balance.
The better your balance, the easier you can stay on your feet. In life, balance comes from taking control of your emotions and considering things objectively.
People that take work too personally are paralyzed in the face of criticism. They take it as a personal attack. They freeze up in the face of rejection and that fear keeps them from moving forward.
You may love your work. And it may be a big part of your life. But your work is not you.
As the punches come in, understand them. Recognize the value in the feedback and the lessons you can learn as you fall short of your own expectations. But don’t take it personally. It’s but one piece of work and no one is defined by one piece of work. Your next will be better. The next one better still.
Come Back Swinging.
“You may encounter many defeats,” Maya Angelou once wrote, “but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” It’s our ability to get back up and keep swinging that determines whether today’s failure is the end, or merely one step in a long and prosperous journey.
If you protect yourself from stress and adversity, your life may be easier, but it’s unlikely to be better. Avoiding difficulties only precludes your ability to handle them in the future. This path won’t help you gain the capacity to stand up to the challenges that life is sure to demand of you.
We all grow through stress and recovery. So be patient. Come back swinging. And remember that no matter what, it’s better to be taking punches in the ring than to be sitting on the sidelines or on your couch at home.