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How To Test Your Strength

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You may think you are strong, or that you have willpower. But do you, really?

A few years back, I remember watching a bunch of old Survivor episodes. I would download them off iTunes, eventually watching all the old seasons. I remember thinking, like many viewers probably, “I could totally do that.”

During this time, I could not do 10 push-ups in a row, nor even do one single pull-up. I had difficulty even focusing my will enough to work on a single work day. I definitely wasn’t fasting once a week like I am now, nevermind being stuck on an island with little food for 39 days.

Still, I thought I was strong. I was sure of it. Though now I realize what was probably obvious to everyone. I thought I was strong… but I never tested myself.

I was like the kid in school who says “Oh yeah, I could totally [get that girl/climb that tree/ace that test]. I just don’t want to.” The kid we know is total bullshit. The kid we think is a joke.

Don’t think that’s you? How would you know?

The answer is, you wouldn’t. Our minds keep our self-esteem at a decent level whatever our personal situations. If you were paralyzed in a hospital bed, you would base your self esteem on something else than your body. You would have to– as I was before I could lift my own bodyweight. The same could apply to you being smart but not working hard. You’d base your self-esteem on your intelligence.

It’s not that we need to stop ourselves from doing this. Nobody wants to be weak. But it’s like basing all your self-worth in your work– it’s an unstable confidence that is easily toppled and leaves you vulnerable. Are you like this?

I have a suggestion for you instead.

Look yourself in the face, and make your confidence broad.

I’ve told you one story, but I could’ve told you any number of them. I used to be really selfish, for example. I used to steal. Still, I made excuses for myself and thought I was great. I’m ok laughing at this now, because I know what things were really like. Ask my oldest friends, and they’ll tell you.

A few years ago, I started to derive my self-esteem from my ability to grow. I always believe that tomorrow will be better than today, and I’m working today to make that happen.

You’re probably wondering when I’m going to deliver on the promise in the title– how it is you should test your strength, to see if you really are strong. Well, the answer is easy.

What it takes is putting yourself in situations, and testing yourself in ways that are just at the edge of your reach. Not too easy (because that’s boring), and not too hard (because that’s discouraging). Find that sweet spot, over and over again, in every domain. Have people challenge you on it. Essentially, look at yourself from the outside in, and test yourself as if you were someone else.

This is particularly valuable if you learn new skills, specifically in areas you used to think were difficult or impossible. This gives you proof that what was beyond your reach can be made possible with enough work. It tests, and proves, your ability to grow, and shows you that tomorrow really can be better than today.

The thing is, tomorrow will only be better if you work, if you strive today to make it happen today. Like Benjamin Franklin, who rated himself every day on his thirteen virtues. You have to be prepared to look at yourself straight on.

If you don’t do this, tomorrow will be the same. That is why you need to test your strength, and your intelligence, your drive and your compassion. If all of them are exercised, all of them will grow.

I’m guessing you probably have your own ways to do this. I’d love to hear them. Email me, or leave a comment. I want to know. I have a feeling I could learn something.

* Filed by Julien at 6:22 am under challenge, guide, training


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

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19 Responses to “How To Test Your Strength”

  1. jpmelos Says:

    Wow, I identified myself so much in this article… I used so much to say “I could do that” on just about everything, and didn’t even give it a try.

    I couldn’t do 5 push-ups or a single pull-up either. I couldn’t run 2 miles. I’ve been training for a year and two months now, and I run 10 miles a day, 100 push-ups and 40 pull-ups, plus I started to bike and swim.

    After that, I figured out this: I am actually right, I can do anything I want. I just can’t RIGHT NOW. I can train, focus or study anything and I’ll be able to reach my objective.

    Then, I started my blog, about one and a half month ago. Something I wanted for so long, and now I’m writing. I feared how people would judge me for what I’d write, what if I couldn’t find subjects to write about, what if I let it die. As soon as I started, I realized now that I have so many things to talk, I barely have the time to write all.

    I found the strength to study harder for my graduation, to be the best person I can, to be compassionate and think more about others.

    Thank you so much for this article.

  2. Cyn @bformidable Says:

    My test is this question, which I probably ask myself a dozen times each day: “Do you want to be BADASS or do you just want to be comfortable?”

    Guess what? I get a little more badass every day.

    Thanks for this post –
    Cyn

  3. Todd Schnick Says:

    One year ago yesterday, I was sitting on my fat butt watching the Macy’s parade, and noticed on Twitter several friends commenting on how they just completed the Thanksgiving half-marathon. I decided to do it myself, mainly, to see if I could do it.

    In a year’s time, culminating in running the Thanksgiving day race yesterday, I have completed three half-marathons.

    It was a test of my strength to finish. To accomplish. This year, I will test my strength to see if I have what it takes to get better. I look forward to this test, because if I do it right, it will be a truer test of strength…

    • Julien Says:

      @Todd, every test is a kind of experiment, a sort of A/B test that tells me whether I’m on the path or not, know what I mean? There’s no way to know otherwise. Happiness should probably also have a way of testing itself. But maybe that’s too self-evident.

      @Bill, I know I wasn’t expected to do heavy lifting. :) But it’s a very fundamental way of understanding incremental change. Then you can take that “everyday progress” attitude and move it into everything else. It’s just a lot harder to find ways to test yourself in other environments. “Lifting heavy things” is a very easy way to measure progress.

  4. Bill Cammack Says:

    Good points, man. :)

    I don’t think anyone expected you to do push-ups, pull-ups or any form of manual labor that required heavy lifting.

    I’ve always perceived your swag as coming from “I’m Julien Smith, and I know things you don’t know! ;)”

    It IS very important to have a realistic grasp on what one can physically accomplish, however. If you believe that you can scale a wall of a certain height, for instance, and you actually can’t, it’s better to start screaming for help sooner rather than later. :D

  5. Zach Cole Says:

    I think I’ve always subscribed to this belief. Primo Levi said it very well in my opinion – “And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.”

    • Julien Says:

      I dunno Zach, I kind of feel like Primo is being a little too easy on himself. That feeling he talks about is addictive and builds confidence. You’ve got to do it more than once. :)

      Great quote though.

  6. Eric Jean Says:

    Speaking as one of these long-time friends: “new” Julien > “old” Julien. I’m just waiting for the right time to publish the tell-all biography.

  7. Jorge Mendoza Says:

    I think that the best way to test your strength is to really having the willpower to change your ways to improve yourself in any area. It is often more comfortable to take the easy road (sitting on the couch, having the same routine job) than getting out there and actually doing something to improve or change that.
    It can be physically or mentally but the true strength comes out when you are able to beat yourself.

  8. Alexandra Says:

    I come at this from the other side. I typically think that “I can’t”. That’s my reflex response to so many things. I didn’t know that about myself until recently.

    So, for me it’s about testing my weakness:
    “Really? I can’t?”

    No. And then I set up a program to do exactly what I said I can’t do.

    For running on damaged ankles, it was 5-minute runs. I did this for weeks. Hating it on several levels and learning that liking it isn’t the point. What matters is what I am gaining from doing it anyway. Besides, there’s A LOT to be learned from listening to yourself carry on when you do something you don’t like to do.

    I’m up to 20-minute runs and increasing my run-duration five minutes a month.

    And, I still struggle with resistance every time! That blows me away, but at least now, I’m in conversation with it all. And in motion.

    Before, I was stuck at “I can’t”. Now, I take it with me.

    Other weakness tests in progress – drawing, writing.
    Coming up: hot yoga.

    So curious to see how it will all go.

  9. Sonja Says:

    This post speaks to me. I have tested my strength in many areas and a seed has been planted to do a triathlon. I have come up with many delays- I need a partner, I can’t afford the gym for the swimming part, etc.
    But I think it’s time I step out of my comfort zone and do something physical. The intellectual has always been my thing. But, I’ve never seen myself as an athlete.
    Thanks for the push

  10. John Anyasor Says:

    Hey Julien!

    As you know, I’ve been doing intermittent fasting (eating every 15-19 hours a day) so yeah… test completed. Thought I could never do it, but now I can! It’s been two weeks today since I started.

    My next test? Handstands. That’s gonna be tough.

  11. Howard Stein Says:

    I like the analogy of diet. Mental and spiritual diet. Keep reading, writing, making, observing every single day, read something that raises the bar, that keeps movement refreshed, differently labelled or strangely described, as in the end the knowledge of the ancients is essentially the same, but dumb animal that I am I need to hear it in as many voices and choruses and symphonies and raw crackling rock and roll as possible. And once my work is done, I’ll take that droplet of luck.

  12. Thijs Deschepper Says:

    I think we are given a great potential to do many things, but the thing we didn’t get, was the mindset to use it to its fullest. Getting that mindset is probably the hardest thing in life, and I’m still strugling with it…

  13. Nick Says:

    I really agree on the part about learning new things. It’s crazy how mysterious something like computer programming or a foreign language can seem before you know anything about it. Solving some of these small mysterious is what makes life so exciting.

  14. lltooljay Says:

    Julien –
    Just want to thank you for this post (and all the others). Love it when my inbox says you have shared again. Your thought-provoking post are very appreciated. Take care!

  15. ArthurHung Says:

    Julien!

    Great post, and to answer your question right off the bat, as I tend to do:

    Put myself in situations where I need to trust life more. As in for example, writing this comment, trusting that this will help me in some way grow. I don’t really know how, and I don’t even need to.

    I simply trust myself that if I’m moved enough to comment on this post, then without any further motivation I’ll do so.

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