Don't Avoid The Hills: How Facing Adversity Strengthens Us

....every time you find yourself wanting to avoid a hill, it is precisely because it is a weak spot that needs strengthening. You’re tempted to avoid it precisely because it matters.

If I could give you one piece of advice for becoming the best version of yourself, it would be this: Don’t avoid the hills.

I learned this from, quite literally, avoiding hills when I returned to running after a several month absence.

I lived in San Francisco at the time, so encountering hills was inevitable—and I hate hills. So every time I reached one, I turned around and went to a different, flatter street. I ran several days a week but always avoided the hills.

Weeks later, a friend invited me to join him on a group hike. I was excited. After all, I had been doing all that running and was eager to take another step toward living a healthier life.

I had no idea what I was getting into. It turned out to be a 10-mile hike—almost completely uphill.

To make matters worse, near the end we were behind schedule and losing daylight quickly, so everyone started running up the hill to make it back before darkness obscured our path through the woods.

As for me?

I couldn't keep up. I ran as fast as I could and still was last in line. I ran until my lungs wouldn't take in any more air, and my heart felt like it might burst.

I had to stop.

Everyone left me behind, except for my friend who came back to wait with me.

All that training, yet I couldn't make it up that hill.

Why? Because I hadn't prepared for it.

Avoidance coping

In psychology, there is a term for what I had been doing: avoidance coping. It’s when we mold our behaviors around doing, or not doing, something to avoid a certain thought or feeling.

Here’s the problem with avoidance coping: It doesn’t work.

Research supports that claim. One University of Texas study of more than 1,200 people found that avoidance coping was associated with more life stressors four years later and depressive symptoms 10 years later.

Overcoming obstacles requires facing adversity

Research has shown that facing some adversity can be good for us. One study found that people who experienced some adversity in life had better mental health and well-being than those who experienced none at all.

In the short-term, sure, avoidance is effective in helping us not to deal with the unpleasant thing (such as running up hills). But in the long-term, it’s debilitating because we will inevitably encounter that obstacle again, and then we’ll be standing before it ill-equipped and unable to tackle it.

So, what are you avoiding?

Whatever it is you're avoiding, avoiding it ensures you will never get better at it.

Maybe you’re terrible at striking up conversations, so you avoid going to social events even though you really want to go.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn Spanish but can’t roll your r’s yet, so you’ve given up on practicing.

Or maybe you’ve experienced devastating heartbreak and think it’s easier to just never open your heart again.

The process of overcoming obstacles that life throws as us is rarely an easy one. It is tempting to take the path of least resistance, especially when it comes to something important to our growth.  Author Steven Pressfield writes extensively on resistance. Usually, he’s referring to creative work, but I think it can apply to every area of life.

In his book Do the Work!, Pressfield lists 11 activities where you’re most likely to encounter resistance; these include pursuing artistic callings, growing spiritually, sticking to a diet, and standing up for what’s right. Then he adds: “In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.”

That means every time you find yourself wanting to avoid a hill, it is precisely because it is a weak spot that needs strengthening. You’re tempted to avoid it precisely because it matters.

So lean into it.

Pump those arms.

Power through it.

You're building muscle. You’re getting stronger.

It hurts now because you are building up the strength you will need in the future to tackle that challenge when it really counts.

Conquer that hill, whatever it may be for you. You’ll thank yourself later.