Ask anyone how life is, and you'll get a variation of the same theme—"busy." And while we're busy doing urgent but often unfulfilling work, our dreams and aspirations often lie relegated to the back burner for us to work on "someday." The truth, though is, it's daunting to get started on these someday projects because they invariably require us to do hard things. Better to stick to the status quo and feel content, right? Wrong.
After 19 years of competing on the world skiing circuit, French skier Johan Clarey won an Olympic silver medal in downhill skiing at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. At 41, Clarey is the oldest Alpine skier to medal at an Olympics.
In his quest to get to the Olympic podium, Clarey beat forty-two other (younger) skiers competing at the sport's highest level.
"I was pushing, pushing," he told the French media. "I knew I only had one chance left in my career to get a medal in the Olympics. I've dreamed of this medal. It's just incredible — the best day of my career."
So, here's the big question: Why did Clarey still find the need to challenge himself? After almost two decades on the world stage, he had his share of fame, money, and recognition. How did Clarey find the motivation to keep pushing?
The answer is more straightforward than you'd expect. Like many others who've achieved outsize success, Clarey stayed committed to his mission to do hard things.
History is replete with examples of people we like to label as overachievers in all fields—sports, business, academics, etc. One common factor underlying all such success stories is that remarkable results only come to those who choose to do hard things.
Of course, you don't have to summit Everest or discover the next element in the Periodic table to be labeled successful. But here's the undeniable truth: Anything worth doing is worth doing well. And, hard things are par for the course for any bar worth setting.
Or, to put it more plainly,
If you choose to do only easy things, your life will, at best, be mediocre.
First, though, let me define what I mean by hard things.
Hard things are those tasks you'd rather not do because they tend to be inherently unpleasant both before and when you're doing them. They are actions that can rev up your anxiety and cause mental or physical stress. And, they can be potentially very frustrating because you may not see progress for days, months, or in some cases, even years.
Ironically though, they leave you feeling most fulfilled and accomplished once complete. That's because hard tasks tend to be in the Goldilocks zone of difficulty: they aren't too easy to bore you quickly, nor are they impossibly difficult. Instead, they are tasks that adequately challenge you, ones that are outside but still within striking distance of your comfort zone.
Here are some examples:
- Publishing a research paper
- Running a marathon
- Solving a challenging coding problem at work
- Having difficult conversations in your relationships
None of this sounds like fun. So why even bother?
The need to do hard things
Why spend months getting out early in the morning in the cold winter to train for a marathon when it's just easy to sleep in and stay comfortable?
Because of this truth: No guts, no glory.
Also, there are a couple of key scientific reasons why we need (and choose to) do hard things.
1. The evolved brain
Polishing off a large box of fries instead of digging into a salad when you are ravenous may feel great in the moment but will invariably lead to resentment shortly after. The same pattern is true when you spend time scrolling through your social media feed instead of focusing on the project report you're due to submit.
While we're proud of our highly evolved human brain, this evolution comes at a cost. The brain rewards both behaviors—the fries feel great when you eat them, and the salad feels good long after you've eaten it. But the pleasure associated with instant gratification is short-lived, invariably followed by its long-term frenemies—guilt and misery.
For you to really feel good about yourself, you have to act in a way that contradicts short-term pleasure-seeking behavior and focus on what will feel good long term. And to that end, the most rewarding moments in life are, more often than not, a result of us doing hard things.
We are here to live, not exist, and living requires us to do more than watch cat videos, or sunsets, with or without chardonnay in hand.
2. Provides perspective
Secondly, doing hard things will make easy things feel, well, even easier in comparison.
If you're working through a college-level calculus course, you're not going to sweat taking a pre-calc test. When you train to run 26.2 miles, the specter of a 10k race won't keep you up at night.
It's all about perspective.
When faced with a new challenge, just knowing you're already working on a problem of greater magnitude will instantaneously make the new challenge seem less onerous and consequently more solvable.
In turn, this means you'll learn to save your stress and worry for the tough things in your life.
Doing the difficult things that you've never done awakens the talents you never knew you had. Robin Sharma
Why are hard things, er, so hard?
You know how the best tasting things are usually bad for you (ice cream, cookies, salty snacks)? Conversely, what's good for you typically tastes like warm cardboard (kale, brussel sprouts). In truth, the real reason is that all the added sugar and salt have so desensitized our taste buds that our palates have forgotten what natural foods taste like.
Likewise, our tendency to avoid hard things is exacerbated directly by our predilection for instant gratification and our brain's obsession with helping us survive (not a bad preoccupation, if you consider the alternative!)
Our brain is wired for survival. The minute it finds us struggling, it senses danger and wants to bring us back into our comfort zones. In turn, the anticipation of the comfort zone releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone. But that's the end of the happy merry-go-around. Dopamine starts to plummet once we are in our comfort zone, leading us to abandon the project and seek another hit. An endless cycle of short-term reward-seeking behavior ensues.
Any difficult task—strenuous physical exercises, writing a book, etc.—can seem to our brains like we are in distress. The discomfort is palpable. It's like gossiping about someone only to realize that the person was behind you the whole time. All you want to do then is to escape to a comfortable place.
This brings us to the main question. How do we find comfort in discomfort? Or at least settle into the discomfort?
How to do hard things
There are no shortcuts to success. But there are concrete, practical steps we can take to stay the course when the going gets tough.
1. Bribe yourself
If you are a privileged parent who's had the fortune of taking a tantrum-prone toddler on a long-haul flight, you'll empathize with this:
Before you step on that plane, you do your best to ensure you have enough distractions (rewards) to keep your toddler engaged on the flight, even if that means breaking every rule—screen-time, snack, nap—you previously concocted.
The fact is, you need all the support you can get when you are functioning outside your comfort zone. One way to get that self-support is by promising yourself little rewards along the way, not just at the end.
If there's one thing we know for sure, it's that our brains like the anticipation of rewards, external or internal. Rewards come in handy when you do hard things. It keeps you from self-sabotaging yourself.
For instance, if I find myself staring at a blank page hoping for inspiration to strike, I'll promise myself a nap or mindless phone-scrolling after writing a thousand words. This anticipation, in turn, starts to build dopamine in my brain, making me eager to get on and be done with the writing.
2. Practice = less scary monster
At the start line of my first marathon, I was a nervous wreck. Not sure if I had it in me to run 26.2 miles. Ten marathons later, I was still nervous at the start line. But I knew what to expect. Kind of. My brain just says to me, "Oh, we're doing this again?" and gets on with it. Without many protests.
When you do hard things over and over again, your brain (and body) get used to the drill. That helps immensely. It takes the edge off. The only thing worse than a scary monster is a scary monster you've never seen before. Practice and repetition are invaluable tools when you're trying to do something difficult.
It's a funny thing, the more I practice the luckier I get. Arnold Palmer.
3. How to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Start small and increment as you go. There is, again, science behind this. When you focus attention on a task, it uses up a lot of cognitive resources, which can stress you out. The bigger the task, the greater the stress. You know what happens when the brain senses pressure. It immediately gets into fight-or-flight mode, exacerbating an already stressed nervous system.
Trying to do much too soon is a surefire way to doom. Start small. If your goal is to publish a book, aim to get five-hundred words done in a day.
Little drops of water make the mighty ocean.
4. Rome wasn't built in a day
Don't rush. Give yourself plenty of room to experiment and fail. Clear your calendar. But show up consistently.
If possible, schedule a set time to do the hard thing on your list, preferably first thing in the morning. Make it non-negotiable.
If you're planning to write five hundred words a day every morning, then your job is to sit in a distraction-free space at 6.30 a.m. for half an hour. The writing part is optional. Really. It may not happen right away, but it eventually will. You can only twiddle your thumbs so much. Ask me how I know.
5. Rein in your Negative Nancy
In his book, Chatter, psychologist Ethan Kross talks about the internal monologues we have with ourselves.
If we're awake for sixteen hours on any given day, as most of us are, and our inner voice is active about half of that time, we can theoretically be treated to about 320 State of the Union addresses each day. The voice in your head is a very fast talker.
You cannot avoid the talkback radio in your head, but you can learn to tame Negative Nancy by bringing your attention back to the present instead of analyzing what-if scenarios. Practices such as mindfulness meditation can help us learn to get our attention back to the current moment.
6. One thing at a time
Finally, and probably most importantly: Do. Not. Multitask.
You may feel like the Indian Goddess Durga, with a multitude of arms, capable of attacking problems emanating from every different direction. Here's a reality check: you are a mere mortal and have no such special powers bestowed upon you.
Studies have proven that the brain doesn't multitask. When we think we're multitasking, we're actually just engaging in rapid Task switching.
This means if you get distracted and pick up your phone in the middle of writing a sentence, then the brain has to do extra work to remember where you last left off. Keep doing this repeatedly, and you end up not just with a very inefficient process but can feel wiped out, thanks to all the mental calisthenics you put your brain through.
You didn't wake up today to be mediocre.
It is tempting to keep reaching for the low-hanging fruit or revel in quick wins, but true fulfillment only comes when you challenge yourself.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Mark Twain