Chasing Challenge

Christine Emming

How many steps are between you and an everyday feeling of aliveness? We’re aiming for the frisson of excitement you feel when you’re next off the diving board, the wide-eyed awe from climbing atop the tallest tree, so high above the grass that looking down gives you goosebumps. When was the last time you felt your chest expand with exhilaration? That’s what we’re chasing.

Challenge is integral to both skill improvement and mental health, but it doesn’t have to be fear-filled. Instead of skydiving, I’ve learned to sew doll clothes with my daughter, taken art classes, joined writing groups, strummed guitar with my son in joint lessons, and last year I learned to rock climb. Doing all these things at once would be time-consuming and expensive; instead, I aim for a lifetime of minor achievements. I follow my curiosities down their little paths, and each pursuit brings joy. 

If you’d like to chase positive challenges too, here’s the way forward: 

Step 1:     Ask yourself, 

“What thrills me?”

Your interests are valuable, regardless of whether they ever garner a dime. Maybe you’ve always collected teacups at garage sales and you’d love to curate a formal, museum-style exhibit. Or perhaps you want to make organic, lavender-scented facial products. What is one small investment toward the interest you’ve chosen? Hint: Usually it’s either time or money.

Baking intrigued me first. But as an entrepreneur with a full-time office job, I only had time to indulge on the rare slow weekend that came my way. Cookbooks with hundreds of flagged recipes pressurized the decision of one empty hour at home. But I enjoyed my baking time, so I kept making time for it.

If baking seems a low-stakes interest, that tracks. After decades of schooled learning, directed and measured at every step, simply using my own time in an unproductive way felt risky. Baking ended with something we could eat . . . most of the time. Over time, I gained confidence in my right to spend money and time on non work pursuits, and the results of my efforts, especially the cinnamon rolls, filled me with happiness.

Step 2: Level up.

Challenge yourself to improve one area of interest this year. Connecting with like-minded people keeps you moving forward. Whether online or in person, try to forge a friendship over this shared interest.

Once I loved baking and understood the whole process was worth my time, I found a weekend-long course for high-altitude bakers. After waffling for weeks, I bought myself a seat. What I learned only piqued my interest, blooming a nerdy love for bakery science. I scribbled notes in the margins of my baking books—questions, adjustments, different spices to use the next round. I joined a monthly baking challenge where bloggers posted about the same difficult recipe. Now I own cookbooks authored by friends I made bonding over this shared interest online.

Step 3:

With baking, I followed the joy of watching croissants crackle in the oven into a bakery job where the queue for my cinnamon rolls ended when they sold out. I got the job without applicable credentials by showing up to the interview with a still-warm array of baked goods. This job paid a fraction of my graphic design intake, but I adored the quiet morning time, just me and a mixer and the smell of brownies. 

But some interests peter out after a trial run. I definitely don’t tap dance anymore! Two years ago, jealous after watching my husband’s carpentry skills grow into a multi-story treehouse while I wrangled kids, I purchased plans to build a piece of deck furniture. The completed project can hold the weight of people. No, that’s not praise.

If your interest no longer serves you, or you find your attention caught by something new, follow that instead. Trust that your own choices will branch growth in a different area and that this journey is a valid part of you.

While I haven’t baked commercially for 15 years, I don’t consider that time wasted. The best type of challenge only adds to your repertoire of skills. I can’t balance the legs on a bench, but I can whip up dessert in 15 minutes, definitely the more popular trick. 

Even when your pursuit doesn’t accrue more than joy, like the hockey card collection my husband started in 2001, it’s still worth the investment. Deliberately chasing challenge is an empowering personal practice, one I hope to continue indefinitely. 

Freelance writer in the mornings, graphic designer by night, Christine Emming plans to hike all of the 257 trails in the foothills of Denver, Colorado.

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