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  • Writer's pictureChris Toepker

Real Challenges Require Standards

Over the last three months, I learned valuable lessons about standards, which is encouraging me to double down on actually testing myself.

You see, in 2018 I was interested in finding a group that helped people “up their game,” both personally and professionally. At the time, I was part of a start-up offering these kinds of services to companies as part of a wellness package, and personally I was ramping up to qualify for the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC).

I found a group online, with a loose structure and driven by an honor system. Back then this seemed fine, and even appropriate. After all, rigid requirements may steeply drive down participation because they appear too daunting. I applied during the limited-time entry periods, but never got in. During that period, driven by HK4TUC goals, I ramped up my own pursuits.

Finally, in 2020 I got in! I was very excited after two years of trying. I was eager to see what the group had to offer and begin pushing myself even further.

The first 12 weeks of the program are billed as a boot camp. Each week a challenge is emailed to the newly formed 150-member group. Each member has a week to complete it. True to the group’s nature, there are a wide variety, satisfying many dimensions of wellness – physical, spiritual, financial, and so on. At the same time, completing each one depends on the honor system. You’re free to modify each challenge according to your own conscience. Additionally, members are challenged to complete some “merit badges,” on their own timeline, but at least one in the initial 12 weeks.

Sadly, what seemed appropriate at first, now seems a fatal flaw.

Half way through, the flaw really started to take shape. That week, the challenge was to get out and be a “wild man.” Members were to get outside and be reminded that humans weren’t born to be at the keyboard or behind the wheel of a car all the time. To do that, we were to walk outside barefoot for a mile, crawl around in the dirt under obstacles, climb trees and carry rocks.

It really struck me – rocks?! The challenge specifically noted something akin to “even though nature workouts are increasing in popularity, they occur in gyms – not outdoors. For this, you need to get outdoors.” Weights and gyms were disallowed.

My problem with this? There aren’t any rocks in Florida. That’s right – there aren’t. Since fall 2019, I spent a lot of time on National Forest and state park trails here, plus covering a 15-mile radius from my place. I could not find a rock of significant size in 100s of miles of roaming. The whole state seems to be made of sand. Take a look. Let me know if you see any rocks!

Additionally, crawling around under obstacles can be downright dangerous. There are a lot of poisonous spiders and snakes in Florida! Not to mention alligators. Was it really worth taking such risks?

I noted these observation to the group, and members attempted to be helpful. Can’t find rocks? Try sandbags, try logs, and so on. Sure, that makes sense. However, each one seemed an arbitrary solution to an arbitrary problem. Ultimately, what was the standard? What would be acceptable and what wouldn’t? Only the honor system would decide.

My mind settled on this arbitrariness. I thought back to other places I’ve lived. Arizona, for example. Plenty of rocks – but I don’t recall trees of any size that would have satisfied the requirement. (Which was something like, “find a tree that scares you a little, and climb it – be reminded how strong you were as a kid.”) Take a look, stop me when you come across a tree...!

So, I gave this “wild man” challenge a pass. However, as the challenges rolled in each week, I couldn’t escape the arbitrariness of the set up. For one example, I write about the Tech Sabbactical here. The flaw grew more obvious.

The final challenge of the regular bootcamp was to go on an overnight “microadventure.” Which is really no problem at all. I’ve been doing them for years when living in Washington. For one example, each Saturday we ventured into the Cascades, with 40-pound packs, climbed a peak and had coffee. “Mountaintop Mocha,” we called it. Many times we left on Friday, overnighted in the mountains, not coming back until Saturday evening. All before I'd even heard of the recommended book on the subject! Here's a few snaps from those trips....

In 2020? “The Time of Living with COVID”? I was less willing to go out. Indeed, my county has stay-at-home orders. My workplace is closed. Most stores and businesses are likewise shuttered. Personally, being exposed to and spreading disease is a huge concern, one that I take seriously. Even so, I wanted to participate. I wanted to be a good citizen in this group I’d waited two years to join.

In considering the microadventure, I struggled with the legal problems – is it even allowed? The moral problems - is it even right to go out? The physical problems - where might I go on this microadventure (since so many places are closed)? But most of all I struggled with the common sense of it - what is this all about anyway? The fatal flaw was gaping in size.

Still, I didn’t want to give up at this last challenge! I reached a conclusion that I would finish both the last regular challenge, plus the lucky-thirteen bonus challenge of 50-miles in 20 Hours at the same time. After all, this kind of overnight was something Michael and I had been doing since 2018, when we went all the way around Lake Washington. Or, similar times going back to the time I walked all the way around Beijing.

Nevertheless, I hadn’t done one since the 50-mile race in Oct. 2019 (not fast, but did finish!). So, it was about time for another. I plotted my course, avoiding the local curfews by quickly passing to another county where there wasn't a stay-at-home order (remember that moral struggle?!). I planned to head out a trail I'm familiar with, but where I haven't explored all the rather lengthy spurs. At the last moment, I thought it prudent to double check the challenges’ requirements and realized - it didn’t matter. I was already out.

I was out weeks ago. Then, and now, I feel like I missed completing the challenges because of arbitrary circumstances. Imagine me sitting with my gear, moments away from heading out, counting up the challenges, along with all the time I’d spent heart-aching over whether the challenges had been met, or not. Now, just sitting there. Faced with the realization that I had missed out already. Weeks ago. Without even being fully aware. Sure, I really should have been more careful. Still, I could not escape the thought: What is it all about anyway?

Ultimately: something snapped. I fell into that fatal flaw. I'd been wasting my time.

Why is that? I was originally inspired by the group’s motto: “do hard things.” But, seriously. The challenges are easy. Call it sour grapes, if you like. However, let’s review a few of my bona fides.

After three months I was about to pull off a significant number of badges, not just one…

  • Scout (going out and navigating in the wild)

  • Monk (focused studies with a significant portion of solitude)

  • Sharpshooter (demonstrated abilities with pistol, rifle, shotgun)

  • Ancestry (collection of family history, heirlooms and memorabilia)

  • Microadventure (being reminded that getting out of the norm is nearby and not all that hard – I’ve written about this challenge here)

  • Journaling (keeping a journal and making use of it for practical purposes)

…just by doing what I usually a smidgen more. It hasn’t been hard.

Indeed, there's another handful that I "completed" years ago and simply don't feel like doing again.

  • Polyglot? Lived abroad learning Mandarin (fluently, was a professional translator), plus a smattering of Taiwanese and Cantonese (Yes! They’re separate languages, not “dialects”) which would have satisfied the badge

  • Entrepreneur? I have had side hustles so long a leading university asked me to manage their innovation space and be the industry liaison to their graduate program.

  • Fighter? I got my kung fu certification 30 years ago, and have been active ever since, most recently as part of the judging panel for the worldwide competition in Hong Kong in Nov. 2019.

  • Ruck? Been doing that on mountaintops for years.

As I thought about it, I concluded the program misses at least two key points in achieving things. Especially in the challenges.

The first is standards. A standard provides established models or examples to be met or exceeded. They measure quantity and quality, authoritatively. There is a big difference between a standard, and an arbitrary barrier.

A standard, anyone can reach and demonstrate. A barrier just gets in the way. For me, and it may sound silly, but it started with those rocks! By not finding a rock, I didn’t finish the challenge. Further examples include how one should complete certain objectives. The member forum contains guidance, for example, to walk some of the longer challenges. What difference does it make? If I can run it...isn't that harder? Seriously - I had worried whether if I ran the 50 miles, would it count? How absurd. It points out these requirements are barriers, not standards.

The second is the vacant honor system. Primarily, this is further proof in the arbitrary nature of the requirements. I’m free to modify them, according to my own conscience. So, as you can readily observe: only those with honor get punished. Anyone who checks the boxes will get the recognition, right? And if even one member does that, it devalues the recognition…the honor… for everyone.

In contrast, a race isn't run on an honor system. Its run on time, distance and officiated rules. Competitors can be disqualified. A certificate for medical, auto, software, project management or other practices likewise show mastery through tests. Students can fail.

The difference is that, with this program, you are expected to disqualify yourself not because you couldn't do it...but because you couldn't overcome arbitrary circumstances. You are expected to fail yourself, not because you were incapable, but because of missing components or restrictions.

To be perfectly clear, I assert: I couldn’t finish the last regular microadventure challenge because of a global pandemic. And, as if further evidence would prove the point more: I had only just the week before, finished the microadventre badge by doing exactly what the challenge asked of me before the stay-at-home order! That doesn’t count – wasn’t the arbitrary right week. Equally, I couldn't finish the “wild man” challenge because I couldn't find arbitrary "equipment." As I’ve mentioned already, others in other locales must have had similar problems for different reasons.

To be sure, I understand that part of the challenges is to see how each person might approach and overcome them. A certain amount of latitude is given in the name of creativity. However, that is simply arbitrary too. It specifically avoids setting a standard.

Of course, I believe that one can always do more. Go further. Be more creative. Push boundaries. That was my hope two years ago when I first attempted to join group. Funny thing though, in the two years, each time missing the window to sign on, it looks like I had already outgrown it.

I’m very disappointed in myself for not following my even more challenging friends. One, for example, went on to do real things like getting EMT certification and doing county search and rescue, even tracking criminals, in their spare time. Another has been dedicated to fighting domestic threats through private means. Me? With this challenge club? I struggle mentally and morally about finding a rock.

Side by side, when I consider the amount of time I put into thinking about the challenges and badges, rather than pursuing real activities, with standards, alongside my more erstwhile friends, how can I not be disappointed?

Still, I don’t regret it. It's been educational, even if not in the way it was expected or intended.

I look forward to now wholeheartedly taking on some of the real-world, standard bearing, activities – including races and certificates. I also look forward to applying my own talents in program design to make the whole thing work better. Stay tuned!

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