Doing Hard Things

I have been somewhat obsessed these last two weeks with the idea that initiating action, however small, can reliably produce surprisingly positive results.

In his tragic masterpiece, Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe captures this truth as beautifully as anyone:

Are you in earnest? seize this very minute—
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated—
Begin it, and then the work will be completed.

(John Alster, Translator)

But what to do when, despite initial efforts, the work is not magically completed? What if the work is hard?

When the Going Gets Tough

Lately, what has worked for me is taking my own advice and embracing a message my wife and I have turned to time and again with our daughters, a stoic family motto of sorts.

We do hard things.

Since their toddler years, our girls have often expressed a statement of exasperation that will be familiar to any parent who has asked a child to persist in a task that is not coming easily to them:

“But it’s haaaa-ard!”

The activity itself has never much mattered—zipping up a winter coat, brushing their own hair, choking down a new vegetable, behaving peacefully through a long car ride, trudging up a hill on a 2-mile hike or tackling long division for the first (or seventh) time—and we learned quickly that disagreeing with their assessment of difficulty, no matter how tempting, was the last thing we should do (if we value our sanity).

Trying to demonstrate that the task is actually quite easy has only ever escalated the tension. Likewise with Socratic appeals to the kid’s long-term interests (“If you don’t try, how will you even learn to…”) and socially conscious guilt trips (“You know, there are kids in Ethiopia who would be glad to…”). Never mind the time-worn stand-by (“You don’t know what hard is. When I was your age…”). One need not even see our girls’ faces to feel their eyes roll at that relativistic rhetoric.

No, the deeper wisdom with which we have attempted to infuse our kids (not to mention ourselves) with grit was drawn from what may seem a less likely source.

The Hard is What Makes it Great

That’s right, Jimmy Dugan. The crusty, foul-mouthed, alcoholic, washed-up curmudgeon of a baseball manager from A League of Their Own has served, at least for my wife and I, as an inspiration.

We do not scratch our crotches, chew tobacco, hock loogies or wail, “There’s no crying in baseball!At least not when our daughters are in the room. But “cleaned-up” Jimmy’s admonition of his quitting superstar, Dottie Hinson, contains a singularly profound insight that anyone who has overcome a challenge in his or her life can appreciate.

We can acknowledge that, yes, the thing we are being asked to do is hard. Doing it may not feel very good. And giving up or aiming lower would be a hell of a lot easier than persevering. But…

We do hard things.

We do hard things because many of our greatest joys and triumphs are linked inextricably to the more difficult challenges we have endured. My wife and I often lose sight of our intention to reinforce this connection for our kids (with combustible results) and, even when we remember, it does not always silence their exasperation at the tasks they find daunting. But then, silencing them is not the point.

It is OK to feel frustrated by a difficult or scary challenge. The idea is to foster an awareness that it is supposed to be frustrating. That our frustration may be the best evidence that we are onto something. Something worth doing. And, just maybe, something great.

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