Ralph and I have undertaken a 21-day “New Year, New You” Stoic challenge. Stoicism, contrary to its pop-culture reputation, is not about being emotionless or inured to life. It is, to borrow a sentence from the website from whence the challenge comes…
a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life.
So for 21 days we’re following along with the challenges set forth to pursue those ideals. This sounded really great until we got the first challenge. It wasn’t even the first challenge, it was the warmup, and I almost called in my chips right there.
The warmup challenge was to dunk yourself in cold water.
Clearly these people have never met me. Cold and I do not get along. Cold, it should be noted, is anything below 80 degrees.
I remember this challenge from last year when we first tried it. I remember standing in the bathtub with the cold shower pelting my skin like tiny icicle razorblades for 21 seconds – the amount of time you were supposed to stand there – and being very irritable about it.
This time Ralph filled up the tub with cold water and we were supposed to take turns submerging ourselves for 21 seconds.
My first thought was… surely you jest. My second was… absolutely not.
My third thought, as I sat my ass in a freezing cold tub was… this is stupid and I hate it and remind me why I’m doing this again?
Yes, I did it. Because what’s the point of doing a challenge if you’re not going to do it?
But I didn’t like it. I was mad at it. The only good thing about it was being done. And then I moved on to day one. And day two. And now we’re up to day six but this whole cold bath thing stuck in a little crevice in my brain where it gnawed and irritated so I scratched at it a lot, swatted it a bit, tried to muffle it with my last two cookies.
Eventually I wrote about it, in my paper-and-pencil journal, where I worked out the problem. The problem is that there are a few things I have never understood about the whole How To Be Successful crowd. The whole Self-Improvement thing. Things that are so cliché and repeated ad nauseam like Gospel Truth.
Cold showers fall into that category. In other words, Things I Don’t Like To Do But Everyone Will Try To Convince You Those Are The Things You Have To Do If You Want To Get Anywhere In Life.
It seems to me more like… here’s a thing you don’t like, so you have to do it to prove something. Because if you want to play the self-improvement game, you have to sit in a cold tub for [reasons].
Do you know what would have been more useful to me? If I had done yoga or ten miles on the bike instead. If I had meditated. If I had written a letter to my mother or called a friend I hadn’t talked to in a while. If I had organized the blasted closet. If I had done literally anything that I would otherwise have put off or avoided.
That would have had some benefit to me. Instead I had to prove something by being painfully cold for 21 seconds.
I proved, definitively, that I could be painfully cold for 21 seconds and survive to complain about it. Done. Day over. I am now a success.
Getting up early is another thing that falls into that category.
Getting up early irritates me. I don’t like being up early. I am not a sunrise person. All the success gurus want you to get up early. They martyr themselves to 4AM and seize the day with their double mocha chai almond milk lattes.
Great. Good for them. Do you know what I do? Sit here at 10 at night and have ideas. And get creative. And do things. And feel good about it. Should success equal misery?
If you excel by getting up early, then get up early. But that’s not me. I don’t tell anyone to stay up late. In fact, I have literally never, ever, not once, ever, heard someone say Stay up late! Watch the clock pass midnight and wait until you see the sky lighten with sunrise before you quit!
THAT’S the secret to success.
I’ve gotten up early. It has literally never helped me. I walk around like a zombie for half a day, unfocused, unable to do more than whatever the minimum requirement is to continue breathing.
I work best at night when it’s dark and quiet and nothing is expected which means anything is possible.
So go dunk your head in a cold lake and leave me alone with all the admonitions to get up early.
I actually don’t mind doing the challenge. I’m up for a challenge. I’ll sit in a cold tub. Once. I’ll get up at 4AM if they tell me to, because I’m playing along. But there’s no way in any universe in any timeline that I do this as a regular course of life.
The other challenges so far have been Merely Challenging but not Pointlessly Challenging. One of them was to write down your insecurities and then burn the paper. I was mad at that, too. It was hard.
Everyone has insecurities. I have a trillion. I was mad that I had to even think about them, because who wants to look in a mirror and see all the worst metaphorical wrinkles?
I was mad, but not because it was stupid. Mostly I was mad that I had insecurities in the first place, mad at myself for having these things that hinder me, these things I want to bury deep and refuse to acknowledge. The challenge forced me to look at those things, to see my ugly self and figure out what to do about that.
But I did it. Because if I can name them and conquer them, even symbolically, then that makes me a better version of myself.
In the end it was liberating. And frightening. And depressing. And invigorating.
I strongly suspect that conquering my insecurities will have a much greater impact on my life than spending 21 seconds inflicting pain via cold tub.
I have a theme this year. Ralph sets one for himself each year, and he prints himself a bookmark with his theme. I have not done it before, but this year I did. My theme is Do Your Own Thing.
Part of that is abandoning what doesn’t work. What doesn’t serve me. What doesn’t resonate.
Let me rephrase that.
Do what works. Do what serves you. Do what feels right, for you. Do what moves you forward. What makes you better. What feeds your happiness and your soul. What improves your world.
So here’s the takeaway: choose your battles. Not everything in life is about cold tubs and 4AM, no matter how many people tell you it is, no matter how many times.
If that was the point of this week’s exercises, then they win. I win. Everybody gets a trophy.
Just don’t expect me to wake up before 9AM to accept mine.