We can get stuck in the rut of living ordinary lives, envying those who seem to exist on a higher plane (known as 'instagram'): heroic types cut from a different cloth. But when it comes down to it, 'extraordinary' is really just about experiencing situations that are out of the normal routine. We hold ourselves back thinking we are nothing special, enslaved to hang ups and anxieties rooted deep in the past. By placing ourselves in new and challenging situations we can unleash potential, and really get to grips with anxieties that have a basis in immediate threats, not obscure hang ups tethered to habitual behaviours!
In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!
“So many of our anxieties are dealing with ‘threats’ whose sources and meanings are lost in the mists of time. So why are we still responding to them? They are activated by continuing to live at the behest of the ‘ordinary’. Yet the odd ‘extraordinary’ exposure can shock us (defibrillate if you like) back into a responsive state, taking action there and then in a positive and progressive manner. "
Breaking out of 'ordinary' thinking
As we head into New Year resolution territory, on the back of yet another annus disastrous, it’s time to make a commitment to changing things up a little.
A hallmark of those who thrive in extreme situations is being willing to confront the unknown, and importantly being open to new experiences. Extreme situations by definition don’t tend to crop up that often. They encompass uncertainty, novelty, unpredictability. Indeed, according to Steven Kotler, in Rise of the Superman, these are some of the characteristics that trigger flow, that so-called state we can all tap into which signifies us performing at our best, ‘in the zone’, unleashing our potential.
It’s all too easy to view such people as being extraordinary specimens of the human race. Those we hear about who endure hardships beyond comprehension. High achievers, pioneers, be that in mountaineering, elite military units, square jawed all-conquering heroes who possess The Right Stuff TM. Let’s bust some myths.
Extraordinary people are really just like you and me. They just happen to find themselves in extraordinary situations.
To certain folks this is just happenstance. They never intended to find themselves in predicaments where they called upon deep resources within to prevail. We hear tales of everyday heroes: those who pulled together to help others in 9/11, or that person who saw the old lady collapse in the street and did their best to administer CPR.
Some folks seem to actively seek out extraordinary situations. Mountaineering, extreme sports, adventure-seekers. It takes all sorts.
I have come across many of the types who seem to epitomise the ‘extraordinary’. Those with special genes who thrive in extremes, pushing the limits, defining what comes next in human endeavour. One thing I have often observed is that in fact they are all very human, very fallible, sometimes comically so. I spent time on an Arctic base, convalescing from an injury sustained out ‘in the field’. It gave me a fresh perspective on, in itself ,a pretty extraordinary situation. So much so I thought it would make a great concept for a sitcom (maybe I will write it someday unless someone now beats me to it!) People live in close proximity, and with that comes the strain of putting up with each other’s foibles. Someone admonished someone else for not having changed their t-shirt in a week. Someone else was on cooking duty and managed to make pasta un-edible. And who had eaten all the crème eggs stashed for an emergency?! Personalities, egos are rapidly stripped bare, no matter how accomplished they may be in their field of expertise...
I find myself somewhere on that spectrum in the position of being a very ordinary person who does indeed seek out extraordinary situations. But not to achieve great feats, or ‘be the first’ to do such and such (well maybe I do a bit). I just want to experience things that grant a rich perspective on what the world can be about if you look hard enough. It is a choice. Some people don’t have any choice – they wound up in the car accident that changed their lives, they got the dreaded news that their ‘condition’ is not fixable. Chemo starts next week...They must draw on a capacity for the extraordinary just to keep soldiering on.
I've been very privileged to have had some experiences wherein I still pinch myself and wonder if I was really there. Crossing crevasse fields in the dead of night at high altitude, lowering into the heart of a glacier, diving beneath a frozen sea with a thin lifeline snaking up through inky black water to a tiny triangular portal back to the real world. And many more besides. Always by my side has been my faithful companion: anxiety.
I was an incredibly anxious kid. I worried from day one about the future: how I would walk to school on my own when I grew older, or what about my driving test (I was 10). I was terrified of heights from the age of 4 after wandering along a steep path above a gorge in the Scottish hinterland. I was also petrified of water from the same period when being led astray by a bunch of older kids and goaded into crossing a log above a deep and fast flowing river when AWOL from my parents (my mother went mad about this when found out I was missing).
I was 22 before I plucked up the courage to try and swim a length of the swimming pool and attempt treading water, never having properly learnt to swim and having had a near drowning incident in a public pool when I was 7. (I swam 30 lengths straight off – very slowly – and tread water for 10 minutes straight – where there is a will...). In fact, a major milestone for me was in 2015 on a ‘stress-loading’ course underwater in Mexico. I was ‘forced’ to endure terrifying drills involving turning my air source off and breathing my supply dry. I’d always been panic stricken, even with hundreds of hours underwater and involved in technical diving that required regular swapping of...regulators. I had always had that trepidation about breathing in water (compounded by a few highly alarming incidents including one where I tried to inhale a vast body of quarry water of several millions gallons...). Of course, in such a hostile environment panic is a swift killer. But I had something of a breakthrough in a severely anxiety producing environment, becoming ultra-calm when taking my regulator out and not immediately plugging my mouth up again with an alternate air source. Revelatory in fact.
The point I am making though is that often our anxieties, our hang ups and our insecurities can be repurposed to drive us forward to overcome conditioned default responses rooted in our past. Yet they are reinforced in the situations we find ourselves in everyday (because we are in habitual mode). We will most likely continue to be ruled by these hang ups as we plod through our daily lives, encountering mundane routine situations that provoke automatic responses. Yet by seeking out out-of-the ordinary situations from time to time we can lay bare the source of our anxieties and actually refresh perspective on what it is that holds us back.
Think about this apparent contradiction in terms: a truly (potentially) anxiety provoking situation can be somewhat therapeutic – because the threat is real. By this I mean it is a concrete threat – be that to overcome uncertainty, or to deal with an actual danger to life and limb (it depends on the level of extreme you are going to!) and respond in real time adaptively. So many of our other anxieties are dealing with ‘threats’ whose sources and meanings are lost in the mists of time. So why are we still responding to them? They are activated by continuing to live at the behest of the ‘ordinary’. Yet the odd ‘extraordinary’ exposure can shock us (defibrillate if you like) back into a responsive state, taking action there and then in a positive and progressive manner.
Whatever to you constitutes ‘adventure’ is fine if it can open the door to an extraordinary experience, or just something a bit different, new to try – it could be going for a walk up Snowdon (or please see me for an alternate source of inspiration), it might be standing up and giving a talk in public (a highly effective method used to provoke a stress response in reliable scientific experiments), being attached to a rope at the climbing wall. Or my preferred method to ‘test the water’ with someone, particularly if we are out on a hillside: a spot of cold-water immersion in a mountain lake. It never fails to elicit the stock response (i.e. automatic, habitual) - “no @&*^ing way”. People seem particularly aversive to cold shock exposure. It’s really fun, trust me”! Even in January...
What I urge you to consider in the New Year is to think about how you can seek out an extraordinary situation to complement that bumper crop of utterly ordinary experiences you will otherwise revel in within the comfort zone of everyday life. Particularly if you are feeling anxious about what life has in store – more of the same? It’s a means to take some control back over the ingrained traits, hang-ups that seem to define us, rooted deep in our pasts.
Go on, in 2022 resolve to do something extraordinary, you just might find it opens up a new world view, and helps put to bed (or reconsider) some of those niggling doubts, fears and insecurities that you’ve been dragging around for years.