When people start on a self-development journey, they’ll sometimes create a bucket list — all the things, all the typically exciting and pleasurable things, they hope to do before they die. My guest started his own self-improvement journey very differently, by creating an anti-bucket list consisting of things he didn’t want to do, and embarking on a “year of adversity.”
His name is Ben Aldridge and he’s the author of How to Be Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable: 43 Weird & Wonderful Ways to Build a Strong, Resilient Mindset. Ben and I begin our conversation with how his struggle with debilitating panic attacks inspired him to study philosophical and psychological ideas on how to fight back against his anxiety, what he learned that can benefit anyone looking to be more resilient, and how he was particularly inspired by the Stoic idea of intentionally practicing adversity to prepare for adversity. We then talk about the project Ben set for himself of embarking on a year of mental, physical, and skill-based challenges designed to push himself outside his comfort zone, how he decided what kinds of challenges to do, and how doing hard things changed him. From there we get into the specific challenges Ben completed, from taking cold showers to learning Japanese, and what they taught him about self-discipline, facing your fears, and the human potential for growth. We end our conversation with the ways he’s continued to push himself after the year of challenges was through, even in the midst of the pandemic lockdown, including climbing Mt. Everest from inside his house.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How Stoic philosophy helped Ben get a handle on his anxiety
- What’s an “anti-bucket list”?
- What Ben took from Buddhism for facing fear and dealing with anxiety
- What spurred the idea for Ben’s Year of Adversity and how he crafted the challenges
- Making discomfort a lifestyle
- Ben’s experience with cold showers and how it helped him manage discomfort
- Why Ben took on the challenge of learning Japanese
- Did Ben take anything from sleeping on the floor or a bivvy bag?
- Tips for improving your public speaking
- Climbing “Mt. Everest” in Ben’s apartment
- Putting more play and fun into the idea of self-improvement
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Meaning, Manifestations, and Treatments for Anxiety
- An Introduction to Stoicism
- The Best Books to Read in Uncertain Times
- You May Be Strong . . . But Are You Tough?
- Stillness Is the Key
- Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life
- How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
- A Shot of Cold Water for Health and Vitality
- How Your Climate-Controlled Comfort is Killing You
- Take the TR/JFK 50-Mile Challenge
- The Importance of Developing a Growth Mindset
- Microadventures with Alistair Humphreys
- The Art of Noticing
- An Introduction to Public Speaking
Connect With Ben
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now when most people start a self-improvement journey, they typically create a bucket list. It’s all the typically exciting and pleasurable things they hope to do before they die. My guest today started his own self-improvement journey very differently by creating an anti-bucket list consisting of things he didn’t wanna do and embarking on a year of adversity. His name is Ben Aldridge and he’s the author of How to be Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable: 43 weird and wonderful ways to build a strong resilient mindset. Ben and I began our conversation with how his struggle with debilitating panic attacks inspired him to study philosophical and psychological ideas on how to fight back against his anxiety. What he learned that can benefit anyone looking to be more resilient, and how he was particularly inspired by the stoic idea of intentionally practicing adversity to prepare yourself for adversity.
We then talked about the project Ben set for himself by embarking on a year of mental, physical and skill-based challenges designed to push him outside of his comfort zone. How he decided what kinds of challenges to do and how doing hard things changed him. From there, we get into specific challenges Ben completed, from taking cold showers to learning Japanese and what they taught him about self-discipline, facing your fears and the human potential for growth. And we end our conversation with the way he’s continued to push himself after the year of challenges was through, even in the midst of a pandemic lockdown, including climbing Mount Everest from inside his house. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/getuncomfortable.
Alright. Ben Aldridge, welcome to the show.
Ben Aldridge: Hi, Brett. Thank you so much for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be able to chat to you today.
Brett McKay: So you published a book, How to Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: 43 Weird & Wonderful Ways to Build a Strong Resilient Mindset. And in this book, you highlight 43 different things that people can do to be uncomfortable and hopefully, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. But the impetus behind this book is interesting because it’s about your story, your history, your struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. So tell us about that story. When did you start noticing you have problems with anxiety and panic attacks? And then for those who haven’t experienced a panic attack, what does it feel like?
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, sure. So all of this is off the back of that, as you said, that anxiety. And seemingly out of the blue, a couple of years ago, I was hit with severe and debilitating anxiety, and I didn’t know what was happening at the time. I had no education on mental health, so I honestly thought I was dying. It was really, really overwhelming experience and it was very physical. So my heart would be racing, my hands would be shaking. I’d be feeling sick, and there was just this underlying sense of fear all the time. And there was no reason to be afraid. And that’s the thing that was so bizarre about it… There was no trigger, and nothing had happened to cause this. It literally came out of the blue. So this really did knock me for six, and I had no tools in place to deal with it. So the whole journey has come off the back of this, learning to manage my anxiety and figure out what was happening.
Brett McKay: And so to figure out what was happening, you started doing some heavy biblio-therapy. So you started reading books, psychology books about cognitive behavioral therapy, about anxiety, even studied philosophy. Well in the beginning of the book, you talk about some of the big ideas that you took away from different modalities, philosophies to help you deal with your anxiety. And surprisingly, one of the most helpful things for you wasn’t particularly psychology, but it was philosophy. It was Stoic philosophy. But what was the big idea from Stoic philosophy to help you start to get a handle on your anxiety?
Ben Aldridge: So yes, Stoicism was a really key philosophy and set of ideas that just really helped me. And at the time, to deal with all of this, I went to the doctor who initially had diagnosed me with anxiety, and I was given a few things that I could do, but for me, educating myself was the number one thing that I wanted to do. I needed to understand what was happening. And that’s, as you said, that’s when I got into extensive reading on all these different subjects and I started picking ideas from different places, but Stoicism was the one that really clicked with me. And I do write a lot about some of these other philosophies and concepts from Buddhism, to cognitive behavioral therapy and mindset. Growth mindset and fixed mindset. And these ideas really really helped, but Stoicism was the one that just, yeah, really resonated with me and allowed me to actively fight back against my anxiety. And the key concept that really got everything going was the idea of practicing adversity. Which is so counter-intuitive when you’re in a anxiety hole and you’re in a very dark place.
The idea is that by practicing adversity, you prepare for adversity. And the Stoics used to deliberately step outside of their comfort zones in order to build resilience. And they did this in so many different interesting ways. So they would expose themselves to the cold, to the heat, they would sleep on the floor, on hard surfaces and they would fast from food and water. And there was one Stoic Cato, he used to wear things to embarrass himself so that he could practice shame. And I love this idea of training. I knew that you go to the gym to train your body, but I hadn’t really considered where you go to train your mind. And the Stoics were doing this thousands of years ago. And that really connected with me. So that was a huge thing, and I started to create my own challenges based off the Stoics and then based on things that would push me out of my comfort zone, in order to see if that would help me to deal with my anxiety, and also to be able to put in place systems to face that anxiety, and to be able to deal with things when they come up. So that’s really what changed everything for me. When I encountered this concept.
Brett McKay: No, yeah and we’re gonna talk about some of the challenges that you did to help you with dealing with your anxiety, and a lot of them were inspired directly from the Stoics. And I think what’s interesting is with the Stoics, I think they counter intuitively, or just intuitively figured out some of the aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy that we figured out millennia later, after stoicism came on the scene. And one thing that we’ve learned with treatments for anxiety is that exposure therapy is one of the best things you do. Instead of hiding or running away from the thing that makes you uncomfortable and triggers the anxiety attack, what a lot of therapists recommend for people who deal with anxiety is exposing themselves to that thing so that they get habituated to it and they learn how to manage the emotions and feelings that come up when they have that trigger.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think that we don’t even need to be anxious people to benefit from the system of fear exposure. And in my book, I talk a little bit about how I created these challenges. And one concept, which is very relevant to what we’re talking about now, is the idea of an anti-bucket list. Now we all know what a bucket list is. That’s where you wanna do these things before you die. You wanna go to Vegas, or maybe you wanna go and I don’t know, sleep in the desert. There’s loads of different things that you would want to do. The idea of the anti-bucket list, is that there are things that you definitely don’t wanna do before you die, and as adults it’s very easy for us to avoid them. And this is something that we can play with and we can create challenges and things around this and the anti-bucket list is essentially a load of things that we don’t wanna do, and we can use that to test ourselves and to challenge ourselves. And this is something that the Stoics would absolutely agree with, and something that they would be behind. And I love this concept. So the anti-bucket list is something that has helped me to create challenges that we’ll talk about later, I guess. But it’s a fun concept.
Brett McKay: So another philosophy that you found useful was Buddhism. And what’s interesting about Buddhism, there’s a lot of similarities between it and Stoicism. But what was the big idea from Buddhism that you took away, that has helped you not only create your… This year of adversity, these challenges you did, but also just help you manage your anxiety on a day-to-day basis?
Ben Aldridge: Yes. So Buddhism is an amazing philosophical system for dealing with life. And I’m not a Buddhist, but I really like a lot of the concepts within Buddhism. The one that really resonated with me was the concept of meditation and mindfulness, and I found that that was very helpful when facing fear and dealing with anxiety. The concept of trying to be more present and focusing on my breathing, it’s been very helpful. And I’ve managed to test that out in lots of different settings, and I know that it works for me. So focusing on my breath is really important. And the idea of impermanence as well within Buddhism, that everything changes and whatever we’re facing at the moment, it will change. It’s the one guaranteed thing in life, is that everything changes. So focusing on that concept and exploring that a little has been very helpful actually, knowing that even if you’re in a bad place, that things will change. It’s not always gonna be like this.
Brett McKay: And then finally, you looked at cognitive behavioral therapy. And we’ve had people on the podcast talk about cognitive behavioral therapy, but what’s interesting about it is that it actually, with science and research has confirmed some of these practices or ideas that the Stoics and Buddhists figured out thousands of years ago. But was there a particular idea from cognitive behavioral therapy that you found useful in helping you manage your anxiety?
Ben Aldridge: Yeah. For the anxiety, just blasting my thoughts with logic. Whenever something comes up, and it’s always that negative self-talk that can help to spiral when you’re in an anxious situation, and your mind can make things so much worse. So cognitive behavior therapy is all about questioning those thoughts and really blasting everything with logic. And that really helps if you question it enough, question those negative thoughts and that kind of internal dialogue that’s not doing you any favors. Blast it with logic, and actually you’ll find that a lot of the time, it’s not rooted in logic. So this does help, and the more you do it, I think the more automatic it becomes. At first it’s very counterintuitive, I guess, but over time you become better at doing it and that’s something that’s really helped me.
Brett McKay: So what’s an example of that, that you saw in your own life? What would be a trigger that you’d have that would sort of spark an anxiety attack, and then what would you do with the cognitive behavioral therapy to challenge that feeling?
Ben Aldridge: Okay. So I think I’ll give you an example of… When I’m climbing. Okay, so I do a lot of climbing and mountaineering. I still feel fear when I’m at a height. So I get sweaty hands and it’s having to deal with that. But it’s constantly leaning into the logical side of the process, like when I’m climbing at the gym and if I’m lead climbing and I’m quite high up, I have to really question this negative thought pattern in my mind, which is telling me that, “Oh, okay, this is a dangerous situation.” I have to counter that and really lean into the logic that actually, I know what I’m doing and this is very safe. It’s a very controlled environment. I’ve spent a long time learning this craft and really leaning into the health and safety, I guess, that side of it. Really focusing on that and countering that internal talk. And that’s just an example of something that… I guess that’s an ongoing thing, ’cause I continue to climb. It’s still a big part of my life. But using that logic in settings like that when I feel afraid, that’s very helpful, so I can focus on that. That’s one example, I think.
Brett McKay: So you did all this research. It’s funny, you mentioned Vegas as people will go on a bucket list. You actually talk about in the book, you actually had your big, big panic attack when you were in Vegas in the United States, and that’s when it really kicked off everything and your whole research into anxiety and how to manage it. And then after this research, you decided, Okay, I’m gonna start from the Stoics, from the Buddhist, from this cognitive behavioral therapy, I’m gonna do the things that make me uncomfortable so that I can get comfortable with those feelings of anxiety that I get. So you had this idea, I’m gonna do this year of adversity and like I just said, I think a lot of this inspiration came from the Stoics who were doing all this stuff, sleeping on the floor, exposing themselves to the cold, wearing ridiculous clothes, so we’re gonna talk about some of the challenges in specific, but…
When you were crafting this year of adversity, how did you figure out what sorts of challenges you were going to do? How did you figure out what sorts of challenges to do, and how did you know that they were challenging enough or not challenging enough?
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, so there was a real mix with that. What I wanted to do was push myself in different directions, so I knew that you can physically challenge yourself and that’s gonna do one thing, but there’s also academic ways to challenge yourself, intellectual ways, mentally, you can make yourself uncomfortable. So I had these categories, and there were three categories in the book. So I talk about, mental, physical and skill, and these are just the kind of broad categories that I would use to brainstorm different ideas and create potential challenges, and then it was about seeing what’s realistic because some of them are massive.
Some of the things that I ended up committing to are huge, like life-changing, really daily committing challenges that are very, very big, and other ones were really small, and I think it was important having that mix, punctuating my year and my life with challenges that ranged in commitment, because if you bite off too many big challenges, it can be overwhelming, and I don’t think you’ll be able to achieve. So it was important to have a mix and to explore the different kinds of things that naturally crop up when you have a more committing challenge, but also there’s a lot to be said for a very short five-minute challenge before you go to work, like somewhere that you can insert a challenge into your day. I kinda like that, having a balance and playing around with it.
Brett McKay: So after you do this for a year, after you did this year of challenges, did you notice a big difference? Was it like night and day, or was the improvement more subtle?
Ben Aldridge: The improvement was… Yeah, I guess it’s been gradually the confidence compounds over time. The more you do these… Or the more I did these challenges, the more confident I became, and I stopped having panic attacks and I stopped… I started to understand how my mind was working, and I gained control of myself, and I started… As soon as that happened, as soon as the panic attacks stopped, I knew that there was value in this concept, and it’s been quite an amazing process. And although in the book, I talk about a year of adversity ’cause I did it, I did a year really to test out this concept, but now it’s something that I continue to do, and there’s lots of things and lots of challenges that I have in my life, and I’ve got a long list of things I want to do. So I would say that it’s a lifestyle, but that’s probably a bit pretentious, but it’s something that it’s a continual thing. The year was like kicking it off, testing it out to see if it worked and if it would help with the anxiety, and when I saw that it did, it’s become a permanent part of my life.
Brett McKay: Well, you said no more panic attacks, but you still deal with some anxiety, and you mentioned the rock climbing, you get fear of heights still, but it sounds like you’re better able to handle those emotions, those intense emotions when they do crop up.
Ben Aldridge: Oh, 100%, yes. And I wouldn’t say that I’d never have a panic attack again in the future, but I think the key for this whole project has been learning how to deal with that, and I guess pushing myself in a relatively controlled environment has allowed me to test out all these different ideas from philosophy and psychology, and the ones that work and resonate with me, I keep them, and now I have a set of tools and tricks that I can use when things get challenging and life throws curveballs at you, and that’s really been the key take home from it. And yes, obviously, I can still get anxious, but I’ve got systems and ideas in place to help me deal with that, which is a massive change from when I first started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. So yeah, it’s been a profound difference, and that’s why I’m excited to be talking about this and sharing it and writing about it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about some of these specific challenges ’cause this is a lot of fun. And the first one you start off the book with is inspired directly from the Stoics. It was embrace the cold. Now, it doesn’t talk about… You didn’t go out in the winter and just sort of roll around in the snow. What you did to embrace the cold was take cold showers. So what was the big take away from this, what was your experience like with it, and how did this help you with your bigger goal of managing discomfort?
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, so the cold showers are great because it’s now a daily ritual for me, and it’s something that I wake up and it’s one of the first things I do. And it’s always it’s dealing with that mental resistance. Don’t want to get into the cold because your body… There’s that kind of… There’s an element of pain associated with the cold, so your brain is telling you that you shouldn’t do it, and actually fighting back against that is all about self-control. So that’s really one of the key take homes from this particular challenge. And the after effects, you feel incredible from being in the cold and exposing yourself to the cold. That kind of endorphin boost that you get afterwards, and just the element of discipline, being able to pay attention to your mind and force yourself to do something that your mind is telling you that this is a bad idea. That’s quite good to be able to play around with that because it’s self-discipline that that’s helping to cultivate.
Brett McKay: And so do you do… The way a lot of people do cold showers, they’ll start off warm and then gradually take it down to cold so that it’s sort of like boiling the frogs, but in reverse.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So but I imagine you recommend you start off cold and just jump right in.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, just cold the whole way. That’s…
Brett McKay: That’s the worst.
Ben Aldridge: The best way to do it.
Brett McKay: It’s the worst.
Ben Aldridge: And then you can take it further as well. You can…
Brett McKay: Yeah, how would you take it further? How did you do that?
Ben Aldridge: So I’ve been… I do a lot of wild swimming, and in the UK, the sea’s pretty cold, so if you’re swimming in winter, then that’s brutally cold, but lots of cold baths and then taking it further with ice baths and I’ve been ice swimming in Finland. That was probably one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve had, and that was brutally cold in a frozen lake, swimming, and that’s really tough, but it’s an interesting thing to play around with, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it.
Brett McKay: When you did the ice swimming, did you jump in a sauna afterwards?
Ben Aldridge: Oh yeah, absolutely, yeah. Had to do that ’cause it’s just so, yeah, so cold.
Brett McKay: You know what’s interesting about the cold showers is I’ve been doing them for a while too but even today… After years of doing this, it still is… You still get that sort of clench factor…
Ben Aldridge: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Right before you get into the cold shower. For some reason I still haven’t gotten used to it. It’s just like my body’s like, “No, this is not gonna be comfortable.” But then, as you said, after you do it, you start feeling better and you feel great after the shower.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s it really, and it’s just a small win, isn’t it? It’s not a big challenge in the sense that it’s not gonna take up a lot of time, but, yeah, it’s… It’s something. I’m really… I’m trying to convince my mom to give it a go. She’s very open-minded, but she’s… This is the one thing that she’s not interested in trying. And my theory is that if I talk about it enough whenever I do podcasts and interviews, if I keep going on about my mom not getting into the cold shower, hopefully that’s gonna be inspiration for her to give it a try.
Brett McKay: To go do it. So another challenge you did was you went on a 106-mile walk hike. So first off, what were you hoping to get out of this experience? And then talk about the logistics of how long did it take you? How did you feel afterwards? Did you wanna die? What was going on with that?
Ben Aldridge: This was a really hard challenge. This was a physical challenge, so this was exploring a different side of the challenge dynamic. And I guess that I just wanted to push myself physically. And I’ve always wanted to do this route, it’s called The Cotswold Way, stops in Chipping Campden, and it’s kind of in the middle of the UK, and it goes all the way to Bath. It’s 106 miles. It’s really hilly, talking about 4000 meters of ascent in total, which is pretty high. And every day was about a marathon, maybe longer than a marathon. And it took… I can’t remember the exact amount of time it took, but most days were 10 to 12 hours of walking. So it was… It’s just the kind of relentless nature of it. It’s so difficult. The first day, you’re excited, and it’s okay, because it’s day one. But day two, you wake up, and your body is in bits, and you know you’ve got another three days to do afterwards. And so it was just that fighting against that pain and also just pushing myself, developing the endurance. And I think the thing with this challenge is I totally underestimated it. Because I’d run a marathon recently, and that was one of the other things, I’d never run a marathon before.
So I got into running, and I… Yeah, I did my first marathon, which was huge. So I just assumed that walking for four days wouldn’t be a problem. But actually, it surprised me, I think I didn’t have enough respect for that. And yeah, it was really difficult on that fourth day as well. And I really hurt my Achilles tendon afterwards. I did complete it though. And it was with a lot of sort of, “Get on with it, get your head down.” But it did… Yeah, it taught me a lot as well, doing that. And it was a very physical challenge. That was one of the harder ones, I think. Actually, when I look back on it, I think time has softened how difficult it was.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, I think we’ve talked about, on this site, this… There’s this thing that Teddy Roosevelt, and then later JFK picked up, is this 50-mile march. And we’ve had people do it. And it was one of the… Yeah, they all say the same thing. It was like, “Oh, it’s just walking for 50 miles. It’s not bad.” But then by the end of it, they’re just destroyed [chuckle] for days. Or just like they… Yeah, they say they underestimated how hard it was going to be.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah. Absolutely. And that’s the thing with walking, it’s very easy to… Yeah, underestimate it. So it was a great challenge and a great way for me to push myself. And it was a pretty awesome experience.
Brett McKay: Would you ever do it again?
Ben Aldridge: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Brett McKay: Yeah, okay.
Ben Aldridge: Absolutely. Yeah.
Brett McKay: That’s good. So let’s talk about another challenge. So we’ve talked about physical challenges so far. One challenge you decided to do in a year is to learn a foreign language, but not just any foreign language like Spanish or French or Portugese or Latin, those are kinda… They’re difficult but not… They’re pretty easy. You decided to learn Japanese. So how… Were you able to successfully become fluent in Japanese in a year? And what did that challenge teach you?
Ben Aldridge: So after a year of Japanese, I’m nowhere near being fluent. But I’ve learned so much during the process. I’m still not fluent, but it’s something… It’s an ongoing process. And the kinda level I’m at is I guess you could say every day conversation, I can speak. All my lessons are on Skype, and they’re an hour long, and I don’t use English. So there’s enough for me to be able to communicate and understand a lot. And I went to Japan at the end of last year, and my experience was completely different from all my previous experiences in Japan. And I set myself the challenge of not using Japanese. Sorry, not using English when speaking to anyone in Japan. So that, I managed to do that.
And that was incredible, because it just… It was the first time I’ve ever been able to communicate entirely in a second language when on holiday in a country that doesn’t speak English. So that was a huge achievement for me. And yeah, it’s just been a constant leveler, I guess, because it’s so brutally hard, and it’s so different from English, the grammatical construction and all of the Kanji characters, or the Chinese characters that they use. There’s thousands that you have to learn, and they’ve got multiple, different pronunciations depending upon context. And it’s a really complicated language. So it’s that kind of learning to have the right mindset when you’re dealing with failure, because learning Japanese is just constantly failing. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for us, to learn how to manage that and deal with it. But it’s been very rewarding to be able to… At least, to be able to communicate in a second language. I was terrible at languages at school, so this was kind of fighting back against that self-limiting belief and working on mindset. So I had a… I’ve had a lot of fun with this, and it’s been a really… Yeah, a really interesting experience.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so that’s another idea that you took a lot from… Or from psychology, was this mindset theory from Carol Dweck we’ve had around the podcast to talk about that idea of that there’s two types of mindsets, there’s fixed mindset and growth mindset. And I think a tendency for a lot of people is to have that fixed mindset, it’s like, “Well, I stink at Japanese, I’ll always stink at Japanese, and I’m just gonna give up. Why bother?” But what Dweck has found is people with a growth mindset, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know Japanese yet, and if I work at it, I can get better.” That can allow people to do more than they think they were capable of doing.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah. Absolutely. And her book and her work is incredible, and it’s had a real effect on me. And yeah, using that attitude when learning another language seems to be the best way to deal with all of the inevitable obstacles. And it just makes it more rewarding. I guess it’s focusing on process over results and knowing that learning something like Japanese is a really committing challenge and something that’s gonna take a long time. But actually within that, there’s so many lessons that we can take out of it. And it’s taught me so much, and it’s given me a lot. So it’s… Yeah, it’s definitely worth doing, and… Yeah, I’ve gained a lot of interesting… I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences as well in Japan. And so it’s something that I really connect with.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think the language learning is really a great way to explore that idea of fixed and growth mindsets, and I know that for a lot of people who are struggling with anxiety or even depression, there’s a tendency to get in that fixed mindset, it’s like, “Well, I’m a depressive. There’s nothing I can do to change. So I might as well just give up.” But no the idea of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindset theory is that; Okay you might not completely cure yourself of depression or anxiety, but there’s things you can do to manage it and that can give you hope, and can help you do those things that we know will help you manage this stuff.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, absolutely, it’s all about just being proactive, taking action, and that’s what’s helped me as well, just being really… I guess probably aggressive in the way that I’ve tried to deal with my mental health, and I’ve just really tried to educate myself and step outside of my comfort zone and apply all of the philosophies and concepts that I’ve encountered.
Brett McKay: So another challenge is sleeping in a bivvy bag. Now for Americans who might not be familiar with what a bivvy bag is… I learned this, the idea of a bivvy bag from another British person, Alister Humphreys, the micro adventure guy. For those who aren’t familiar with the bivvy bag what is it and what did this experience of sleeping in a bivvy bag teach you?
Ben Aldridge: So the bivvy bag is great, it is essentially a giant bean bag, that goes on the outside of your sleeping bag, so you don’t need a tent when you’re camping. And it’s water-proof and you just put it over your sleeping bag and then you can sleep on a mountain summit or by a river or on the beach, or in the forest, and it’s enough of a protective shell to keep the elements at bay, but you’re also very conscious of the elements ’cause you’ve got your head poking out and it’s a very wild back to basics experience. But it can be a lot of fun, and I’ve certainly had some interesting experiences in a bivvy bag, and it’s one of those things, it’s very… In a way, it’s quite stoic because it’s not that comfortable. Let’s be honest, sleeping on the floor and you are exposed to the elements, and if it is a lovely summer evening and you’re in a beautiful place in the countryside, it’s probably not that hard. But if you’re in the middle of a thunderstorm and you’re on a beach and it’s a little bit crazy outside then that is a pretty challenging experience.
So I’ve had both of those experiences, and I think it’s good for us to play around with this, and I’ve enjoyed the connecting with nature and actually the difficulty of it, it’s not easy, but it’s always novel. I’ll tell you, I’ll never forget. Every single bivvy that I’ve done, they’re very memorable. So yeah, I highly recommend it. It’s just such a great way of getting outdoors and it’s a really lightweight way to move around as well.
Brett McKay: And so you said, okay, you mentioned sleeping on the floor. Because it means when you’re in a bivvy bag, that’s what you do, you’re sleeping on the ground. But another challenge you did was instead of sleeping in your bed at home, you decided, I’m just gonna sleep on the floor like the Stoics did. What did you get out of that challenge? And how did you think it helped you?
Ben Aldridge: Well, that was a ridiculous challenge, and I think the key with this whole project as well as being finding some things that are a bit ridiculous, some things that are more serious. And it’s again, yeah, it’s play. Play is the key, really. And just exploring. But yeah, this one, literally just lie next to the bed and try not to get into the bed because the whole night is gonna be uncomfortable and it’s just fighting that… Every part of you wants to get up and get into bed. And it’s that, dealing with that mental, that kind of mental resistance isn’t it, start fighting back against it, trying to stay in control, self-discipline, in the situation, it’s very easy for you to solve that problem, and the temptation of having the bed right next to you means that it’s very easy for you to solve the problem. You just literally move less than a meter. So it’s really paying attention to what your mind does in these situations, and that’s been the key for everything, just paying attention to what I’m thinking and working on that, and I think these ideas compound as well, so the more you do it the more comfortable it becomes.
Brett McKay: So public speaking is one of the most common fears that people have, and induces anxiety, even in people who don’t have problems with anxiety. Was public speaking an issue, was that anxiety inducing for you?
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, yeah, it was. And…
Brett McKay: Okay, so what did you do to do public speaking?
Ben Aldridge: So my dad was an actor and he’s now a director and he works with businesses and helps people to speak, and he’s basically the perfect person to help coach me, so he’s been amazing in helping me to deal with that. And I’ll never forget the first piece of advice he ever gave me, it’s hilarious. It was that when you’re speaking to people, when you’re up in front of an audience, and this is coming from his experience, he’s been on the West End stage in front of thousands of people every night for years, and so he knows about how to deal with that tension within your body. So he said… And honestly when he first told me this, I didn’t think he was being serious, but he said what you need to do is put all of your tension into your bum, so tighten your buttocks as hard as you can, put all of your tension into the lower half of your body, and this frees up the top half of your body, it frees up your vocal cords, it frees up all of that tension in the top half.
If you’re forcing it down into the bottom half, this is gonna help you with that, dealing with that stress and all of these people looking at you. And honestly, I thought he was joking, but actually, it does work. If you put… You force your tension into the lower half of your body, I found that from when I’ve had to do certain things speaking-wise, it really helps because it does free up, frees up the top part of the body and then naturally after maybe 30 seconds to a minute, you do start to relax a little bit in the environment, but it’s that first moment, isn’t it, when you’re in the… Thrown into the headlights, you’ve got them on you and that’s it. So I love that piece of advice.
Brett McKay: How did you… Did you just look for the opportunity to give a speech, is that how you did this challenge?
Ben Aldridge: So for me, it was at work, it came up with work, so I had to figure it out and do that at work, and then naturally, I’ve been doing it more now recently when the book has come out. So I’ve had lots of workshops and lots of podcasts, so I’ve been able to practice this, getting into that, into that head space and using it, and I’m confident that it’s gonna be a skill and something that I’m gonna be doing a lot more of. So it’s been really interesting to explore and yeah, that tip has been particularly helpful.
Brett McKay: And one way you can make this harder is do an open mic stand-up comedy, ’cause that’s the pressure. ‘Cause you go up there and people are expecting you to be funny, and if you’re not funny, the pressure there could just really cause people just to flounder and dealing with the discomfort of telling a joke that doesn’t land, and being okay with that and moving on, that can make this experience a lot harder.
Ben Aldridge: Oh yeah, I think that sounds ridiculous, I haven’t done that yet and I just think that’s really… So the stoic that I was talking about earlier, Cato, who used to wear deliberate… He deliberately would wear ridiculous clothes to feel shame. So this is that really, isn’t it? You go and you deliberately bomb a stand-up night and you just have to deal with that feeling inside is… Or your material doesn’t work, and I think that that in itself could be quite an interesting experience. So yeah, there’s loads of ways to play around with making public speaking harder, but I think it’s an interest… Yeah, it’s a fascinating skill to explore.
Brett McKay: So we mentioned earlier, this idea of the anti-bucket list, doing the things you don’t wanna do, like doing the things that you’re most afraid of. So it’s like basically exposing yourself to your biggest fears, and you did this for one of your challenges, you just said I’m gonna do things that I typically would say I would never do. So what were the fears you purposely exposed yourself and what did you get from that experience?
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, so the perfect example of this is my very serious fear of needles, which I turned into a challenge, because it’s one of those things that actually… Because I don’t wanna do it, and because there’s a lot of resistance to it, there’s a huge amount of growth that can actually come off the back of it if I face that fear. So I turned my fear of needles into a challenge and the challenge was to go and get acupuncture. Now, if you’re afraid of needles, getting needles in your face, in your stomach, in your hair, in your arms, in your legs, all over you, that’s not easy. So that’s one of the things that I worked up to, and I spent some time doing that. And yeah, I managed to do it, and I kept doing it until it became pretty normal. So it was a great way for me to deal with that fear of needles and slowly exposing myself to it. Well, actually, I say that, I kind of jumped into the deep end with it and just used all of these, the tools and tricks that I’ve been studying, to help me get through that, and then I went and just got covered in needles and it was a funny experience.
Brett McKay: Yeah, for me, it would be like handling tarantulas or snakes, that… Don’t wanna do that. It’s like one thing I’m not a big fan of, so I’d have to… It would take some gumption to do that for myself.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, but I think there’s a lot that you would learn as well about yourself if you are forcing yourself to do these things, and I think this can be quite an insightful experiment. So what I love is just hearing how different people respond to the anti-bucket list. Because everyone has different things that they find particularly challenging. Deep water is one that gets mentioned quite a lot, swimming in the sea, if you can’t touch the bed, the floor below you, and there’s other things. Yeah insects come up all the time, and heights and this public speaking. So it’s… I think it can be that, yeah, there’s a huge amount of room for people to experiment with this, and having a system to deal with adversity and having some tools and tricks in place can help us, and actually we’ll know that these tools work when we apply them in a controlled environment. And I guess that’s a controlled environment, isn’t it? We’re forcing ourselves to do things that are difficult.
Brett McKay: You mentioned heights, you purposely induced vertigo in yourself, you went to Chicago and went to the… It used to be called, I know it as the Sears Tower, I think it’s called the Willis tower, it’s something different now, but there’s an observatory there that you can sort of look over with the glass and it’s just, it induced vertigo in you.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah, so that was a good one because I do a lot of climbing. But again, I do have this thing, like I do, I have a bit of a thing with heights, so it’s always been… That’s always been something that I’ve played around with in the Chicago tower was just the perfect example of really pushing myself because they’ve got these glass boxes on the outside of the tower and you can literally walk out over the streets of Chicago hundreds of meters below you on glass, there’s a couple of inches of glass below your feet, and it’s really… If you’ve got a problem with heights, that’s pretty tough. I was with my girlfriend, we were there together and she had no problem at all. She walked out… Because the box is going maybe like two meters out from the side of the building, so she just walks out as if there was no problem at all. But when I walked out, it was just so difficult for me and my hands are just so sweaty and yeah, that was a pretty memorable experience.
Brett McKay: So you did a year of this, intense year of adversity, since then, what sort of things have you done to keep up this idea of the year of adversity in your life?
Ben Aldridge: So naturally, now it’s a mix of, things just crop up that are challenges in life. So 2020 has been filled with challenges and… It’s been applying all of the things that I’ve learned from this experiment to real life as well, and that’s been really helpful. And then also just continuing to progress with some of the other things that I picked up during that year. So pushing myself with my Japanese and running races and marathons, and meditating, and doing all of these different things and seeking bizarre challenges. And during lockdown, I climbed Mount Everest on my stairs. I decided that, because we weren’t allowed to go out for… In the UK we’ve had… It was quite a strict lockdown for a couple of months, and during the peak of that, I decided that I was desperate to go to the mountains, but I couldn’t.
So I brought the mountains to me and I spent eight… I think it was seven or eight days climbing my stairs. Which was the equivalent height of Everest. So I had to go up and down my stairs 2137 times and that was a really bizarre challenge, and I actually had a lot of fun doing it. My girlfriend was at the table, because we were both working from home, she’s at the table in the front room, just working away, and then I’m just going up and down the stairs relentlessly to try and complete this challenge. But that’s one thing that I’ve done. I ran a marathon in my garden as well during lockdown, and my garden’s only seven meters long. So that was another example of something maybe a bit more bizarre.
Brett McKay: Well, I think that’s a good point with the pandemic and the shelter in place orders that we’ve all experienced to some extent. ‘Cause it’s so easy to be like, “Well, I’m just gonna watch Netflix and play video games and whatever.” But I think there’s something in us that needs that challenge, to actually feel healthy and to push ourselves. And I loved how… You’re finding creative ways to challenge yourself even when you might not be able to go outside, there’s still things you can do if you’re creative to challenge yourself.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah. And I think it’s important to have fun as well when you’re doing it. Not to take yourself too seriously. Because it can be a great way to connect with people and actually… Because even though I couldn’t go and see anyone, I posted a few pictures on Instagram of this climb, and then I actually managed to get some virtual climbing partners who agreed to climb it with me but on their stairs. And it turned into this quite fun thing. I got offered expedition support from, a sherpa support from this company that actually work in the Himalayas and loads of people were piping in with advice and stuff. And it turned into this really nice event and actually it was something that, I’m never gonna forget that, that’s such a bizarre experience. But yeah, we can find challenge anywhere. I think we just gotta have the right mindset and just be open to be creative and look at different ways to push ourselves and this whole project has been about mixing the kind of the normal challenges or the slightly more mainstream challenges, with the bizarre and the weird and the wonderful. And it’s been… Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think it’s a good point, ’cause I think a lot of times people, they take themselves a little bit too serious when they try to do this self-improvement stuff. Sometimes you gotta have an element of play with it and be okay with feeling a little silly. You’re like, “Well, cold showers, what’s that really gonna do? Is that gonna do anything?” Well, I don’t know, give it a try. You might find out, maybe it doesn’t do anything for you, but you won’t know until you try it.
Ben Aldridge: Yeah. I completely agree. And I think these ideas compound. So it might not be the cold shower that does it, but I think if that’s one of many different things that you’re doing, they all add up. And together that’s what makes the difference. Over time when you’re doing and constantly seeking out challenges in different places, and in different ways, in different styles of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, I think that’s what makes a difference. It’s not gonna be one thing. If I talk about solving a Rubik’s Cube, it’s not like you can solve a Rubik’s Cube and then that’s it, everything changes. But it’s one challenge in a list of many things that over time, if we do this, I believe that it teaches us about who we are. And it teaches us about how to deal with difficulties and what works well for us when we’re facing a challenge.
Brett McKay: Well Ben, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Ben Aldridge: So my website, benaldridge.com, is a great place to start because it’s got an active blog and a link to all of my social media. And Instagram is where I’m most active. The handle for that is @dothingsthatchallengeyou. And that has loads of pictures from various challenges and climbs and whatnot, and lots of philosophy and quotes and things, so it’s a real mix there. And if you’re interested in the book, it’s on Amazon. It’s in lots of different bookstores and… In the US, I can’t remember exactly what book stores it’s stocked in, but you should be able to find it if you Google it.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Ben Aldridge, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.
Ben Aldridge: Well, thank you so much for having me on. It’s been brilliant to chat to you. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Ben Aldridge. He’s the author of the book, How to Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website benaldridge.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/getuncomfortable where you find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic. And if this idea of doing challenges, weekly challenges for a year, interest you make sure to check out strenuouslife.co it’s our online platform membership site. Where part of it is we send you weekly challenges that are gonna put you outside of your comfort zone. Besides that, we’ve got badges based around 50 different skills you can earn. We’ve got accountability for physical fitness, doing a good deed. Got enrollment starting up here in a few weeks, so go to strenuouslife.co get your name on our waiting list. So you can be one of the first to know when enrollment opens up.
Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website the artofmanliness.com, where you find our podcast archives, and if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code Manliness at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or a family member, who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this was Brett McKay reminding you all to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.