Finding My Crucible

I was getting ready for the first vacation I had in years. My sister insisted on us taking some time together for a few days and I was glad and worried at the same time.

Things were pretty hectic at work, (as if there was a time when it wasn’t), and I tried to convince myself that I can make it work. I was out only for 4 days and a half, yet I’d still squeeze a phone call here and there whenever there was some idle time. Emails and Slack replies? Easy, at my fingertips 24/7. Deliverables? ”I can take a look at that once I get back to my laptop.’’

If you didn’t feel a slight discomfort reading my first couple of paragraphs, that’s good, most probably tolerance is one of your virtues. If you thought for a second that I was being anxious or I exaggerated, you are a normal person. Either case, both my past and present self would get along with you pretty well.

You might be asking what’s the point of all of this, and, honestly, it’s merely a sequence of events that brought me one of the biggest epiphanies of my life.

That wasn’t our most successful trip; we soon learned that voyaging to an island during Covid wasn’t our best bet. We got back home and I remember having a heart to heart with my sister telling her “I’m tired of being tired’’. We talked about it and it wasn’t just the stress related to work, but also some sort of mental and physical weariness, too. Sleep was never restful, food was boring, I lacked initiative, I only responded to obligations, I didn’t feel much connectedness to anything. I slowly ceased to have any major ups and downs, not quite suffering, but not wanting much, either. I always had a pretty strong direction in life, but it felt like I lost the excitement somewhere along the way, a long time ago.

This is usually the moment when people take drastic measures. They change jobs, switch careers, move to another city, take a sabbatical, find new hobbies, go to therapy etc. I started working out.

I called only one personal trainer to ask for an appointment. He was one of the best out there, busy and picky as he should be. He warned me, “I’m only gonna help you if you decide to make this part of your lifestyle”. I promised I’d treat this as seriously as a client project, and I did (anxious again?). That was a year and a half ago and I had only missed 3 sessions because of my transcontinental travels. I already knew I could keep hard commitments, so that was not the lesson. It was actually a full MBA on mental toughness.

Playing pro volleyball in my teen years helped me set some expectations, but it didn’t do much. I was low on everything—strength, mobility, coordination, the ability to follow instructions or even count my reps. I quickly realized how much I was living my life on autopilot and I was seriously worried. The shame of not being able do any better was infinitely more painful than the physical one.

Yet I showed up three days a week, no matter what. Sometimes my mind would refuse to cooperate, other times it was my body. (Rest assured, there are still days like this, but twice a month, tops.) I was still tired, sometimes stressed, other times just absent-minded.

Gradually, I started being more and more curious at the process. Coach would give me some stuff to read, we’d discuss it. Why and what happens in the body when you move too little or too much, how your brain learns to communicate with your muscles, how to read your stats, how to use food as fuel, when to take supplements, how to mentally prepare for a workout, how to switch your routine depending on your cycle, how to make workouts fun, and many, many more. I still feel like I know very little, but at least I’m settled on the fact that there’s really no substitute for this. I stopped saying “I hate this!” every other superset almost a year ago.

Things never got easier, really. The exercises would become increasingly complex, the weights grew heavier, the rest times shorter. It was my mindset that had changed. Instead of refusing to try something hard, I’d ask for assurance—“are you sure I can do this? What if I fail?”. Most of the times I didn’t fail, and even if I did, I was safe. That was it. Feeling safe enough to let myself fail was the epiphany.

Then the inner healing followed. Working on setting better boundaries and communicating them was the hardest part. Taking time off felt healthy, refusing to work on stuff that didn’t matter was liberating. I started reading more, and writing again. I had found new creative outlets. I was more understanding of other people’s limitations. I would have an easier time revising my decisions, admitting my mistakes.

Looking back, I realise that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the life that I had chosen prior to this. I didn’t need a new career path or a change of scenery. It was not a matter of lack of motivation or insufficient introspection. I needed healing, and it happened from the outside to the inside. Working out gave me mental clarity, it made me grow my strengths and work on my weaknesses outside my resume, it had me walk with intention, it helped me learn so much about my body and my health in ways no books ever could, it gave me a thing to hold onto when there was slow progress in my life, it nurtured the trust I had in my own abilities and my capacity to rely on others. It made me comfortable with silence and rest times, it had me start yearning for good sleep, happy to cook and eat again, build routines, stay lean and take pride in it.

The HBR describes crucible experiences as events that ”force leaders into deep self-reflection, where they examine their values, question their assumptions, and hone their judgements”. This can be a life-threatening event, a crisis, a demanding manager, self-doubt etc. that ultimately influences positive change. The author suggested that there are 4 skills that enable adversity learning: mastering the art of engaging others in shared meaning, finding your voice, building up integrity and increasing your adaptive capacity. I think it’s a pretty good filter for making decisions about hard things, in general.

I was lucky enough to live my way through a crucible experience I had chosen for myself; I’m grateful for having had the freedom to start and the support to continue. Painful as it was, I got nothing but wins.