No matter who you are, there is one thing that is a consistently clear measurement of whether you are pushing yourself in the right direction.
The more difficult something is for you, the better.
I am aware this idea is counter to virtually every trend in the modern world. Society is consistently optimizing our lives for ease and convenience. Efficiency is everything.
Yet for all of the wonderful benefits of modern technology, the one downside is that there are fewer personal opportunities for difficulty to enter our lives.
In my life, I pay attention to choices between difficult and easy and I consciously try take the difficult route. I am not always successful in this pursuit, but I try.
The search for difficult is a mindset. I take the stairs instead of the escalator. Instead of checking my phone first thing in the morning (the easiest of things to do), I will wake up, put my feet to the floor and do a little yoga. If I am fighting with a family member or a friend, I will do the one thing that, at the time, seems like the most difficult thing in the world to do. I will be the first to apologize.
I have done this on a grander scale as well.
I have gone on separate month-long backpacking trips in Peru and the Chilean Patagonia. I walked the 15km a day and camped in the snow and eaten food from a can. I have ridden through Vietnam by motorbike without a phone or GPS.
Because it is these times when I grow the most.
I learn about myself. I push myself. My perspective shifts. I am forced to do with less. I become more appreciative of the smaller things in life.
Did you know that without unbelievable amounts of pressure and heat, diamonds are not diamonds? They are simply carbon in a solid state.
As humans, it is difficulty that takes us from carbon to diamond.
Difficult and our brain.
Before we talk about why difficult experiences are so important, I would like to provide a little background on our brains.
Have you ever wondered why it is easier to stay in bed in the morning than to get up? We know we need to get up. We get up every day. So why don’t we get up right away?
Because getting up means facing an unknown day with unknown problems. Problems that may cause us harm or make life difficult. And deep down, our subconscious mind’s first reaction to anything difficult is kind of like this:
It is a basic survival instinct that stems from when we were more like monkeys and less like humans. You see, a long time ago, life was hard. Like, really hard.
I’m not talking about washing your clothes by hand, building a fire every morning for cooking, walking a mile just to get drinking water “hard.”
I am talking about before. When humans were nothing more than nomadic tribes roaming the Earth in search of food. When eating every day was not guaranteed. When eating every week was sometimes not guaranteed. Death was always imminent. Conserving energy was vitally important to survival. More energy meant a better chance of finding food and shelter, competing for sexual partners and avoiding predators.
Because every aspect of life was so damn hard, our brains desperately sought for easy. Easy kill, easy tree to climb, easy place to cross the river. Easy was nice. Easy was good.
Difficult, on the other hand, was bad. Difficult meant exerting more energy. Difficult meant more effort. Difficult meant a higher likelihood of death.
If you watch a pride of lions hunt, you will see this basic instinct that I am referring to. Lions will not chase the healthy adult gazelle when an injured calf is falling behind. There is no honor in their hunt. They pounce on the easy kill without pause.
Human nature is to do what is easiest, even when this is not the best thing for us.
Much like water, we follow the path of least resistance.
The predicament now is that life isn’t so hard. In most developed countries, life is easier than it’s ever been. Our brains just haven’t picked up on this yet. We are easy addicts living in a world that constantly asks us if we want another hit of convenience.
This is why; just as our ancient ancestors learned to search for easy in order to survive in a world that was unbelievably difficult; we must learn to search for difficult in order to thrive in a world that is constantly tempting us with easy.
This is the importance of difficult.
Difficulty is a relative concept.
One of the wonderful things about difficult is that it is a beautifully simple measurement for progress.
Just like snowflakes, no two people are exactly the same. What is difficult for you, whether mentally or physically, may not be difficult for me.
Difficult is dependent on our personal attributes as well as our previous experiences. As our lives change, so too will our difficulties.
Thus, we should never use a standard scale of measurement to track progress or improvement. Our sole focus should be on one goal:
Making things that are difficult less difficult or, ideally, not difficult at all.
Say, for example, that you wanted to get into better physical shape but you aren’t sure where to begin. Easy peasy. Just follow difficult.
If it is difficult for you to touch your toes, start there. Bend down and stretch until it burns. Keep trying to touch your toes until it isn’t so hard to do so. If it is hard for you to run, then jog. Once you can jog, start to run. When you feel your chest burning and it is difficult to breathe, you know you are on the right track. If you can’t do a pull-up, then hang from the bar until your back burns. Once you build enough muscle to do one pull-up, keep doing one until you can do two. Then go for three.
If meditating for 10 minutes is hard for you, try to meditate for one. If that is difficult, try for 30 seconds. If you can’t do that, close your eyes and take one deep breath.
Pat’s first workout plan was genius.
Every time he wanted a meal, he would get up and walk to Walmart to buy his food. For 600+ pound Pat, the 1.5 mile walk was all the exercise he could handle. When this became easy, he moved on something more difficult.
Pat wins bodybuilding competitions now.
We are all infinitely more capable than we think. The problem is that we rarely give ourselves much of a chance to succeed. We quit too early. And a major reason a lot of us bail on the goals we set is because of the comparisons we make with those around us. When we cannot do what others can or when we do not achieve what we see others achieving, we become discouraged and feel that our efforts are a failure.
This is precisely why it is so important that we use difficult as our guiding barometer for success. Forget about everyone else. Forget about the people you see who are wildly successful or who seem to be in such command of their lives. You are not them. You are you. You are not where anyone else is. You are where you are, and this is where your focus needs to stay.
Personal progress is never achieved in leaps and bounds. It is the result of consistently pushing yourself just a little bit more.
By using your own internal gauge of difficulty as your guide for progress, your focus can become very simple:
Be the best version of yourself that you can be on that day, in that particular moment.
Remember that even the most successful people were not always as they are now. Everybody starts somewhere. The successes of the people you envy are merely a reflection of how frequently they have entered the arena to battle what was difficult for them.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t use external measurements to track your progress. Follow difficult. If what you are doing is difficult for you or if it takes you out of your personal comfort zone, rest assured you are on the right track.
This is, and will always be, enough.
Difficult is a great guiding compass.
In addition to being the ideal measurement for improvement, difficult is also helpful when it comes to making decisions.
The Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald are some of my all-time favorite fiction books. In the series, McGee has a best friend named Meyer. Meyer has a theory he calls Meyer’s Law, his personal rule for making emotional decisions:
“In all emotional conflicts the thing you find hardest to do is the thing you should do.”
I would take this law one step further and say that in almost all decisions, the more difficult choice is likely the correct choice.
We have never had more information available to us than we do right now. It’s everywhere. As Derek Sivers says in The Tools of Titans, “If more information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”
So why aren’t we all billionaires with six-packs?
Because of our ancient brain’s predisposition to stick with the easy and familiar. This indescribable force often pushes us into doing the things we know may not be the best for us or, consequently, into avoiding doing the things that we know are good for us.
Which is why we follow difficult.
Is it difficult for you to apologize to your spouse after a fight? Is it difficult for you to not intervene as you listen to your 7 month old baby crying for attention in their crib? Is it difficult for you to approach an attractive stranger at a bar and introduce yourself? Is it difficult for you to order the salad instead of the triple bacon cheeseburger? Is it difficult for you to stop drinking?
The conversations you are avoiding are most likely the conversations you need to be having. The exercise you dread at the gym is probably the one that should be perfecting. The part of your work project that you are avoiding is the one you need to be working on the most. The habit you continually justify is the one you most likely need to change.
Follow the choice that feels difficult. More often than not, it will be the right decision.
Growth is proportional to difficult.
Difficult times are when the most personal growth happens.
The more difficult an experience, the more you will grow and the stronger you will become.
Many of the world’s greatest businesspeople and entrepreneurs came from nothing. John D. Rockefeller. Oprah Winfrey. Tony Robbins. George Soros.
The examples are countless.
Not a chance. The difficulties and hardships of people who start out with little in life are a major reason for the successes they are able to achieve later in life.
Because their circumstances demand it. There is no other choice. Either you hustle and grind and get creative or you get left behind.
Remember that we all have the same ancient brain begging us to conserve energy and stay in the cave. The only difference is that people born into poverty do not have the luxury to give into their inner temptation to do nothing.
“Oh, how blessed young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and a beginning in life,” John D. Rockefeller once said. “I shall never cease to be grateful for the three and a half years of apprenticeship and the difficulties to be overcome, all along the way.”
You know, John D. Rockefeller, arguably the world’s wealthiest man of all-time.
It was more difficult for me to move to South America than it was for me to download Rosetta Stone Spanish. But my Spanish has improved much faster as a result of my being immersed in Spanish speaking countries.
The person who goes on the two week jungle trek through Papua New Guinea will experience more personal growth than the person who approaches an attractive stranger at the bar. Both things are very difficult to do, but one is just a skosh’ more difficult than the other.
Your feelings of fulfillment and joy after doing something that is very difficult for you, like skydiving for example, will be much greater than your feeling of fulfillment from something more routinely difficult, such as forcing yourself out of bed for a morning run.
You’ll still feel great after the run, but you’ll feel soooooo much better after skydiving.
You will grow more as a person through honest conversations involving difficult questions – “What am I lying to myself about?” “What beliefs do I have that limit me?” – than you ever would through conversations about the weekend’s football games.
The “growth-difficult” theory can also be applied to situations that are outside of our control. Some of life’s most difficult moments are also some of the best opportunities to learn and grow.
Every time I have been dumped, for example, I have eventually picked up the pieces to re-construct a stronger, more independently happy version of myself.
My parents divorce, while life-shattering at the time, turned out to be the driving force that took me from boy to man.
The loss of a close loved one, perhaps the most brutally painful experience you can go through, often becomes a catalyst to remind you of what is really important in life.
Remember that no matter what personal difficulties you may be experiencing, this too shall pass. As long as you remain open and honest with yourself, at the end of it all you will come out stronger.
Embrace the difficult.
In 2012, German free-diver Tom Sietas set a world record by holding his breath underwater for more than 22 minutes. Yes, you read that correctly. 22 MINUTES.
Most of us bail after thirty seconds when we feel that initial shot of adrenaline. So, what makes Tom Sietas so special? Are his lungs 44 times bigger?
Not. A. Chance.
The difference lies solely in his willingness to consistently push the boundary of what is personally difficult for him. There existed a time when holding his breath for two minutes underwater was difficult. It was difficult until it wasn’t. Then he moved on to three minutes.
I am firm believer that you can do almost anything you want to do in life. Travel the world, play the guitar, act in a play… The only obstacle will be your natural inclination to opt for what is easy and familiar.
Embrace the difficult. Look it in the eye. Ring the bell, step into the ring and go toe-to-toe with it. Make it a common enemy that you spar with on a consistent basis.
Because the result of consistently embracing difficult is simple.
If you liked this idea, here are some resources that helped me along the way:
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holliday
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