I would have thought that one of the side effects of writing a blog about courage would be an increase in my own courage quotient. In fact, over these past months researching, discussing with Jennifer, and writing about how to nurture courage in kids, I’ve noticed more moments when I’ve wanted to quit than climb. Granted I’ve recently taken on several new projects and a new job, my kids started new schools, and my husband started a new business in one of the toughest economic climates since the 1930’s. My learning curve is steep and the challenges real. But as someone who’s prided herself on being what Dr. Paul Stoltz (1997) defines as a “climber” in life, noticing that my inner “quitter” is alive and well is, well, humbling.
In his book The Adversity Quotient: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities, Dr. Stoltz outlines three types of approaches that people take in life, using mountain climbing as a metaphor. Listed below are his definitions, excerpted from the introduction of his book (1997) :
The adversity continuum ranges from: “avoiding, surviving, coping, managing, to harnessing adversity.” (This brief summary is taken from The Adversity Advantage: Turning Everyday Struggles Into Everyday Greatness by Erik Weihenmayer, Paul Stoltz, and Stephen R. Covey, 2006).
“Quitters simply give up on the ascent—the pursuit of an enriching life—and as a result are often embittered. Quitters tend to blame others, become overwhelmed, and allow adversity to endure longer than necessary (5-20% of folks, according to a poll that Dr. Stoltz and his team of experts took of 150,000 leaders across all industries worldwide).
Campers generally work hard, apply themselves, pay their dues, and do what it takes to reach a certain level. Then they plant their tent stakes and settle down at their current elevation. Campers tend to let adversity wear them down, resort to blame when tense or tired, and/or lose hope and faith when adversity is high (65-90% of folks).
Climbers are the rare breed to who continue to learn, grow, strive, and improve until their final breath, who look back at life and say, “I gave it my all.” Climbers tend to be resilient and tenacious. They focus on solutions versus blame, and they are trusting and agile (the rare few).“
Here’s an example of how I was humbled recently by my inner quitter. We had relatives visiting from the West Coast who wanted to see the place where our ancestors had fought as United Empire British Loyalists during the Battle of Saratoga. We lost that battle, which provides some nice foreshadowing to what happened next.
Despite now living in the historic town of Saratoga Springs for over four years (not knowing before I moved here that my ancestors were born in Saratoga many generations before), I hadn’t yet climbed the Saratoga Monument erected in memory of this famous battle. I’ve wanted to. But our timing was always off given the limited hours this monument is open. The Battle of Saratoga was a turning point in the American War of Independence from Great Britain. On the 100th Anniversary of the victory, a rock-faced granite obelisk that stands 154 1/2 feet (49 meters) was erected in memory of this battle.
The Saratoga Monument is a Gothic-inspired tower which doesn’t appear to be all that imposing to climb. In fact, it wasn’t until the interpretive guide said “You’d be surprised how many people I have to rescue each year and pry off the spiral staircase close to the top of the tower!” that it first occurred to me that I should be scared to climb. Fear can be a teacher. It can alert us to danger. It can also get in the way of climbing.
My son, true to his personality, general enthusiasm and love of life, raced up to the pinnacle of the tower in no time at all. No need for courage coaching from me. His voice soon echoed down to me, my uncle, and my daughter, “Keep climbing, it is SO COOL when you get to the top!” My uncle kept stopping to take photos at different points along the climb up the cast iron stairway of 184 steps. He wasn’t entertaining any fearful thoughts. He just wanted to savor the journey up a little more. While my daughter and I, on the other hand, plodded very slowly up the tower, fear beginning to catch us in its grip with each step we took. It took my breath away, literally, how quickly my fearful thoughts trumped any initial enthusiasm about the climb. I’m not prone to a fear of heights, so my sudden trepidation about climbing came as a surprise.
My daughter has a healthy caution in her approach to life. She prefers to look first before leaping. Her brother just leaps. There is a balance in life, I’m sure. But each of them seems to have adapted nicely to their unique approaches to life challenges, and it’s working for them. As I’ve written about previously in my post Discourage/Encourage: What’s a Parent to Do?, knowing when to push and when to pull back with our kids as they face challenges in life takes some learning to adapt to, respect, and understand their unique personality styles and areas of strength/weakness. With my own kids these days, it’s usually more a matter of getting my own neuroses out of their way!
Midway up the tower, the climb shifted to the steeper, narrower, less welcoming kind. I noticed a few “campers” at this level. We’d left the “quitters” at the bottom before even starting our climb. I chatted with one other “camper” parent enjoying the view mid-way up of Schuylerville, the farm fields and cemetery surrounding the tower, and the views of the Vermont Mountains in the distance. The view was pretty good, but my son kept enticing me to higher, better vistas. The “camper” parent and I chatted about how when we were younger we didn’t really give much thought to climbing to the top of such towers or even rock climbing. But now, as parents, we’d become much more fearful and measured in our risk-taking. It may be an unconscious cautiousness (reptilian brain) that develops when we have children to take care of and need to survive for? It may also be related to the development of our executive functioning (higher brain) as adults? Unlike children and most teens, whose brains are still developing, generally we now have the cognitive capacity to weigh our choices, imagine possible future scenarios, and/or can perseverate on fearful thoughts.
My daughter looked to me, I noticed, to gauge how “we” were doing on the climb. She was waiting for me to stop chatting and climb onwards. But she was starting to feel afraid, too. My pasty-white skin (and this was not just because of my British ancestry) was likely the first clue that I was starting to lose my nerve as a climber. The parent camped out mid-way up the tower, before the spiral staircase bit started and no more windows allowed a peak out until the top, seemed happy enough with where he’d climbed to. He soon headed back down, wishing us luck, and reassuring me that it was probably best just to stop and camp. It is always possible to find support for whatever approach we take in life, a cheering squad of fellow quitters, campers, or climbers are always at the ready.
As my daughter and I made a first attempt to climb the spiral staircase that grows increasingly narrow culminating in a pointy tippy-top, my uncle surpassed us. The promise of a stupendous view from the pinnacle had less and less appeal the more I wavered at my various camping points. I even climbed back down twice to the mid-level encampment. My daughter joined me once, then got wise and asked for a more inspiring climbing partner. My uncle climbed back down and promised to stay close behind her while she took the lead to the top. Just like me, her legs were shaking and fear had taken root. But my daughter’s competitive spirit trumps any fear she has. She wasn’t going to let her brother win! She made it to the top in no time. Now I had three cheery voices beckoning me to the tippy-top of this god-forsaken tower.
Just like I coach parents to do with their children, I gave myself the freedom to choose. I yelled back to my kids “Don’t push me. I need to do this on my own without any added pressure, thanks! Just give me a minute to regroup. I’m not sure I really want to do this yet?” I weighed my personal pros and cons for completing the climb. I asked myself what I was really afraid of and how realistic it was that the tower would completely collapse at the very moment I was climbing the final ascent—after more than 100+ years standing! I wasn’t THAT special nor my karma THAT bad. I engaged in some positive self-talk, like “I can do this. My kids will be proud of me. I will get to see the majestic view. I will have done my ‘something that scares me’ thing today. I can cross this climb of my list of things to do in life.” Basically, I needed to outwit, out think, my fear.
Eventually what worked was to just focus on what was immediately in front of me. I didn’t look down, and I didn’t look up. We tend to scare ourselves the most with thoughts of the future or regrets from the past, instead of just tackling what is right in front of us. The old adage that I now apply to writing for this blog, especially, is to never underestimate what I can accomplish in 15 minutes of focused activity. I may not know exactly what will come of all this research, talk, and writing about courage—and I may even have to suffer through noticing more my own cowardice than my courage in the process—but I just have to keep showing up.
As I climbed the tower, I stared intently on the stonework in front of me, brick piled on top of brick. Picking up my feet, heavy as they were, required some effort, but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. When I reached the top, after my third attempt, the view was beautiful. My legs were still shaking. My kids were engaged in spying local landmarks through the tiny windows at the top. My uncle was happily taking more photos. I’d done it! We had all done it! That was enough for me. Plus, it was pretty cramped quarters at the top. Back down I went, probably not spending long enough camped out to enjoy the view. But I didn’t quit.
I’m not sure if Dr. Stoltz would agree or not, but I think we are all a composite of climbing, camping, and quitting. To align too closely with one particular approach in life, in my experience, seems to lead to stagnation. Too much climbing and my inner camper wants a rest, my inner quitter wants to avoid and withdraw from life. Too much camping and I lose some of my much needed and admirable drive. Too much quitting and depression, anxiety, and other unhealthy habits could emerge. Taking breaks, enjoying the view, asking for support, identifying meaningful goals, and taking pride in however we are able to show up each day is important. As Woody Allen has said in the past, “80% of success is showing up.” I showed up. I climbed. Likely with much less courage than my ancestors had to muster on those battlefields, but I climbed. These days, I am much more likely to be inspired by the courage that my children muster as fellow climbers on this journey than I think I inspire courage in them. I climb for them, as much as to keep up with them!
The good thing about writing this blog? It forces me to look for opportunities where I can boost my courage quotient—especially in front of my kids. It keeps me real. Hopefully reading our blog inspires you, too, to bring awareness to the areas where you and/or your child are social courage
climbers, but perhaps more likely to quit physical courage
challenges? Perhaps you’ve camped long enough as a family in the moral courage
camp, and it’s time for a spiritual courage
climb? Regardless of whether you are camping, climbing, or quitting in the various areas of your life, it takes intellectual
and emotional courage
to reflect on the choices we make and the ripple effects in our lives and the lives of our children.