We, especially in the fitness world, have all heard some form of this advice before - to surround yourself with people that challenge you. My favorite mantra is "If you're the fittest person in the gym, find a new gym." I love that idea. I love the idea that you pick your people, your running partners, your lift mates, based on them pushing you to be better, stronger, faster. You run with people that go just a little faster than your comfort pace. Life with people that make you throw another 10 plate on the bar. Yoga with people that have mastered crow or handstands while your favorite position is still corpse pose. You work out with people that are better than you, because that challenges you.
But that's not what this post is about. This is about picking people in every day life, not just fitness, who challenge you. Because challenges ALWAYS make you better. This is both incredibly difficult and incredibly simple - especially for us who have strong opinions and values. It's hard for us to be around those that feel, vote, or think differently. Just like it's hard to learn a new movement, or feel like we're struggling to keep up on a run. We either think they are less educated, less compassionate, less intelligent, or just plain wrong. We either find no common ground or we do nothing but fight on that ground. We either avoid these disagreeable subjects or come to them ready for battle. We begin "discussions" armed with our own arguments, our points and counterpoints, our facts and research. But I'm not just talking about political, religious, or social issues. I'm talking about how we live our lives every day. Here is why surrounding yourself with people who challenge you is so incredibly simple - because you don't need to find someone smarter, more fit, or more experienced than you. You just need to find someone different, someone who thinks about things differently, approaches things differently, finds happiness and joy and passion in different things. This might be the easiest task in the world.
When I moved to California I hated it. I thought the people were shallow and unambitious, the weather was too sunny and picture perfect, and the radio stations were awful. Overall, I thought the pace was too slow and lazy. I thought the happy hours lacked depth and significance. People talked about yoga, not international politics. People met, spent hours together and never once asked "what do you do?" People spent whole days lounging at the beach, napping, brunching. It drove me crazy. I thought, do you know how many emails could you answer in that time? How many miles could you run? How many meals could you prep? I thought the girls that spent their evenings trying to "find a man" were frivolous and hurting my feminist cause. I thought it was ridiculous to spend more money on make-up than race fees. I thought these people were a little behind me, that if I just explained, ok preached, to them the values of work ethic, social justice, and overpacked schedules, that they too would give up their lazy lives and become overstressed, anxious, go getters. I had assumed that I had figured out how to live and they just hadn't yet.
I was wrong. I'm not saying I'm giving up my ambitions of saving the world or my weekends of 14 appointments. Or that'll put makeup on this week. I'm saying that people challenge you in the most surprising ways. I'm saying that it's ok to slow down, let a little sunshine in, and pour a cocktail at noon. I'm saying it's ok if others are more or less ambitious that you are. I'm saying that different goals are less or more. Moreover, that the goal of being happy is a valid and admirable goal. I'm saying that we all have things to work on. But mostly, I'm saying that challenging yourself can't just be in the gym, or the classroom, or the debate hall. Truly challenging yourself has to be about every day life. Try it. Talk to someone that looks at things completely differently. If you like to throw weights around while listening to Rob Zombie, try yoga. If you're a ultra marathoner that mocks those super fast 5k guys, sign up for a road race. If you're someone that has been focused on your hair color more than activism, talk to an activist. If you're someone that hasn't put makeup on in 2 months, grab fresh manicure or shade of lipstick. You'll probably change a few things about how you live your day to day life, and maybe you won't. Maybe your views will change drastically, maybe you'll just strengthen your original ideas. Surround yourself with people that challenge you, not because they are better, but because they are different. Do this and you'll surely connect with a few more people and learn more about yourself and the world. Most importantly, you'll surely learn a little more empathy. And empathy is half of the secret to peace, happiness, and progress. But more on that later....