Spencer Richard

Adopt the Challenge Mindset


Ever heard of a game called SuperBetter?

Game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal is the esteemed inventor of SuperBetter, a game she made at first to help her deal with suicidal ideation after an unfortunate bout of post-concussion syndrome, but gradually it became something bigger. Now there are hundreds of thousands of players who play SuperBetter and people use it not just for dealing with post-concussion syndrome, but for anything and everything—basically anybody who wants to get better at something or make their life SuperBetter (Side note: You gotta love that name). She spoke at TED about it and some other benefits of gaming [see bottom of this article], and although it was something I had seen a long time ago and thought was cool, I never actually thought to go ahead and try the free game until last week.

In the talk she convincingly discusses some of the benefits of having a gameful mentality and what it means when you transfer that mentality from gaming into your real life. Recently she put a book out called (quite in theme with everything) SuperBetter. It fills out and complements that talk wonderfully. I’m reading it. And it’s damn good. This isn’t going to be a review of that book, per say, but rather me sharing something great I learned from it, hopefully enticing you to give it a read yourself.

McGonigal highlights something referred to within the scientific community as the challenge mindset, its opposite being the threat mindset. Here’s an example from my own imagination to illuminate this concept:

Imagine a jogger out in the woods. He spots a cougar about 20 yards away up in a tree suddenly and he notices that it’s staring him down. It starts to slink slowly down the tree toward him, which is unusual behaviour for a cougar. They usually prefer to sneak up on their prey, he thinks. The jogger has nothing but a wind breaker and an iPod. The threat mindset is probably what will trigger automatically. The jogger will see that he is being stalked and he will begin to worry about whether or not the cougar will attack him, his heart rate will increase and he will experience a sort of stress response. The threat mindset is basically telling him, “Buddy, you’re dead meat. It is time to panic.”

The challenge mindset is what will kick in soon after if the jogger has any survival sense whatsoever. Instead of panicking, the jogger realizes that he is potentially going to be in a fight for his life. He begins to look for ways to try and intimidate the cougar from attacking him, he begins to see if there is a large enough rock nearby that he can use to defend himself. His heart rate will increase and he will experience a sort of stress response, physiologically similar to the threat mindset but with a key difference. The difference is in attitude. The challenge mindset is basically telling him, “Buddy, get your shit in order. It’s time to defend yourself.”

Without doubt, the challenge mindset is far superior to the threat mindset. This is because the threat mindset only does so much for you. It’s an alarm-bell but in the case of the cougar, it can also turn very easily into a dinner-bell. Its a focus on things that stimulate your fear or anxieties to the point of detriment. To be fair, this mindset has a place in the spectrum of human experience. It can help warn us when we are in a helpless situation, and there are times in life when we really do need to curl into the fetal position for a while. But though this mindset has its advantages in rare circumstances, the challenge mindset takes it one step further and bolsters your physiological response for advantage. It can turn an ill-fated situation into a triumph.

One of the tools that McGonigal encourages her readers to use is to “Find the Unnecessary Obstacle”. This one really resonated with me. Allow me to quote her directly:

Think of the biggest uninvited difficulty you currently face, or any personal setback or disappointment you’ve experienced in your life.

What to do: Use your imagination to answer this question: What would be the worst possible, least helpful reaction that you—or anyone else in your shoes—could have to it?

She gives several examples provided by SuperBetter players themselves. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Lost my job / Turn to a life of crime
  • Have a bike accident and concussion / Confine myself to a small padded room for the rest of my life to avoid injury
  • Recently lost my mother / Drop out of school, let myself be consumed by grief, stop eating, and waste away, until my mother starts haunting me from the other side about how much it hurts her that I’ve given up on my dreams

Just to get all up in your face and personal, I’ll share my own:

  • My own self-sabotaging and destructive tendencies / I lose my job and never publish anything, cause immense grief to my family and show the world once and for all that I am a failure. Wind up driving dump-truck again because it’s the only thing I am capable of (no offence to dump-truck drivers).

Take a minute and actually do this. Take a pen and write down your scenario. I highly recommend you do this like I did. Reading about it won’t teach you as affirmatively as actually putting pen to paper.

Seriously, do it.

… Did you do it?


Now, McGonigal flips the equation on its ass. Take your scenario and consider: “What is the opposite of that worst reaction?”


  • Turn to a life of crime / Turn to a life of service
  • Confine myself to a small padded room / Find three new outdoor spaces to spend time in while I recuperate
  • Drop out of school, waste away, and be haunted by my mother / Everyday try to make my mother proud

And mine:

  • Lose job, disappoint family, suck at everything, etc. / Keep excelling at my job and publish novels (while producing music) until I can make a living from it, causing immense pride in my family and showing the world once and for all that I am not a failure. Wind up writing for a living someday and enjoying the prosperity of a life well lived.

NOTE: Jane McGonigal herself read my article and shared with me some tips for improving my answer here. She suggested that I focus on what is in my control vs. what is not in my control. A dynamic that I was aware of but didn’t totally exercise. Here is my updated version:

  • Lose job, disappoint family, suck at everything, etc. / Keep working hard at both my career and finishing the first draft of my novel, 3000 words a week, dedicating quality time to my family, and keeping positive about my future prospects but all the while writing for the sheer joy of it.

Doing this exercise has two benefits, McGonigal explains:

First, when you imagine the worst possible reaction you could have to adversity, you highlight your agency in the situation. You do have options. And as long as you’re not doing that worst possible, least helpful thing, you can challenge yourself to do something better. It may not feel like total agency and choice, but it involves some agency and choice—and that’s enough to activate a challenge mindset.

Meanwhile, imagining the opposite of the worst possible reaction gives you a specific positive and purposeful goal. This goal is now something you can aspire to achieve. You may not have chosen your current adversity, but you are choosing to challenge yourself in an engaging way that improves your chances for growth and success.

This, among many other challenges and interesting insights into how to live gamefully, is one of the reasons to go out and read this terrific book.

Note: SuperBetter is free (and amazing), but there is also a current Indiegogo campaign trying to raise enough funds to upgrade the game and release more free features for everyone. It’s worth checking out over here.

About the Author View all posts Author website

Spencer Richard

was once a small town columnist for THE HINTON PARKLANDER (2008-2009). Before then he performed to an unsuspecting audience of over 8,000 people during the ALBERTA WINTER GAMES in 2006. Later he had one of his own songs, ON THE WAY, produced by Black Road Records (2013) and showcased it in with an original music video. He is currently working on a couple of novels and a rap album. During the day he manages a book store in Edmonton, Alberta.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *