Scott H Young

Do Hard Things


I have a rather uncommon mantra for my life:

Do the hardest thing you can.

Uncommon, because I’ve met exceedingly few people who agree with it. In fact, almost everyone suggests the opposite. When I started my MIT Challenge, one of the most common warnings was, “don’t burn yourself out.”

Yet, despite taking on bigger projects, I’ve found this mantra to be increasingly valuable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the few people I have met who live this mantra are also incredibly successful. What’s more interesting is that the more I follow this mantra the happier I am as well.

Building Strength

If you lift the heaviest weight you can lift, then you become stronger as a result. This is true, not just of muscles, but of yourself as well. Doing harder things makes you a stronger person.

A synonym for this kind of strength might be confidence, although that also has implications of irrational self-assessments as well, so I prefer the word strength. When you’ve taken on harder and harder tasks, and succeeded, then everything else in life seems a little less daunting.

When I did my first course for the MIT Challenge, it was stressful. I’d rarely learned at that pace before, and the constraint scared me. Now working on the classes 11 to 13, I’m not stressed at all.

I’d also say I have fewer negative preoccupations during this challenge than before it. Taking on a hard task can also be a source of focus, shifting yourself away from the myriad of little frustrations and disappointments that otherwise eat at an empty mind.

What if You Burn Out?

Implicit in the mantra is the hardest thing you can do. Which means not doing things which are strictly harder than you can do. After months of research, I felt learning, and writing all the exams for, a computer science degree in one year was doable. Doing the same in three months wasn’t.

Burnout shouldn’t be the goal, but it might be a side-effect. After all, doing the hardest thing can sometimes lead to taking on a project that turns out to be too hard.

But even in that case, how bad is burnout really?

Burnout, like any failure, is only temporary. The only way to ensure you never feel burnt out is to never do anything difficult. The costs of risk must be weighed against the opportunity cost of perfect safety. I’d rather have the occasional burnout, and have developed the inner-strength to confidently take on the world, than to hide away from it.

Caveats: Hard, Not Many; Harder Goals, Not Harder Methods

Two important exceptions:

  1. Difficulty shouldn’t add. One challenging goal isn’t the same as two moderate challenges simultaneously.
  2. Difficulty should be intrinsic. The goal should be what’s hard. Don’t take an easy goal and make it needlessly difficult.

The first is to distinguish the philosophy of hard work from the philosophy of busy work. Many ambitious students fall into this trap. They want to boost their resume, so they take on dozens of different activities, which individually are only moderately hard.

The problem with this philosophy is that the benefits of difficulty don’t add. Doing one hard project, in terms of impressiveness, learning and developing confidence is way better than trying to juggle three fairly easy projects at the same time.

If a goal doesn’t require at least a certain degree of obsession, it’s not a hard goal. Adding easy goals together doesn’t make them “hard” in the way I’m discussing.

The second is to make it clear that the difficulty should be in the constraints. Once the constraints are established, you should try to make accomplishing it as easy as possible.

Hard Work and Interesting Work

Difficult projects also tend to be interesting. If the challenge is difficult enough to require a minor obsession to complete, then it usually also needs to be interesting, if it has to generate the motivation to accomplish it.

It’s this correlation between difficulty and impressiveness that I think explains another correlation—people who seek hard work tend to also be successful. Not for the simple reason that they also tend to be ambitious (I don’t notice the same correlation with the people who rack up numerous easy accomplishments), but because hard projects generate a path for future opportunities.

A related mantra might be, “Always do the most interesting thing you can.” This is a little trickier to implement in practice. (What’s interesting? What if you don’t know where to start?) If you omit the cases of difficult projects which are uninteresting, then I believe the original mantra works pretty well.

Happiness and the Challenge

The main reason I follow this mantra is that it makes me happier. It took me awhile to discover that fact, since I had been convinced by everyone around me that the key to happiness was avoiding stress and difficulty.

Looking back, I think they were certainly correct about challenges forced upon you. Choosing to do the hardest things also implies that you’re choosing. If you’re coerced into taking on harder work, it has all the stress and frustration without the excitement.

In the end this mantra isn’t correct for everyone. Some people really will be happier if they could sit on a beach all day. But if you enjoy the thrill of the challenge, even at the sacrifice of a little leisure, then I’d say it’s a good mantra to live by.


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35 Responses to “Do Hard Things”

  1. Great article! I think everyone should read this, especially because it is fundamental to personal development.

    Currently I’m doing the 100 pushups challenge, meditating every day and keeping a personal development blog while going to school (lots of activities there too), learning an instrument and trying to connect with other personal development bloggers. It is tiring but exciting and rewarding. In the future I plan to do harder trials (really looking forward to the radical honesty one) and plan to blog about them, too.

    I’m really glad I found your website, Scott. There’s so much value to be found in here, it’s crazy! Heres my hopes that with effort I’ll be able to deliver as much value to a large audience through my own website (http://myquestforgrowth.blogspot.com).

  2. Lasse says:

    Wow. That is one of the best blog posts I have read in a long time.

  3. Jesse says:

    Hey Scott,

    Been reading your blog for a while now, and I love your MIT challenge. As for this blog post, I’ve been trying to internalize this mantra over the last few weeks, so I thought it was cool to see you posting about it.

    I’ve avoided things in the past that were hard, but not because they were hard per sé, but the thought of trying to pursue them was scary. Tim Ferris talks about this as well in the Four Hour Work Week. If you’re afraid of something, that’s probably the best thing for you to do. So I feel the two are closely related and it’s all about overcoming fears and pursuing hard things in order to be successful.

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  5. Chris says:

    Your little comment really spoke to me: “I’d also say I have fewer negative preoccupations during this challenge than before it. Taking on a hard task can also be a source of focus, shifting yourself away from the myriad of little frustrations and disappointments that otherwise eat at an empty mind.”

    I really struggle sometimes with dealing with the ‘myriad of little frustrations’ in life… eg the other day i lost it over the hassle of doing my taxes. I think you’ve got the solution there. Thanks!

  6. Stephan R says:

    Hey Scott,

    just wanted to drop in a question not directly linked to this article but nevertheless worthwhile posing:

    Is there someone in your life at the moment who acts directly as your personal mentor/role model (except all the countless mentors that do not live anymore)?

    I was wondering whether walking through life successfully requires one to have a mentor on a permanent basis. Maybe after some time of self-mastery the need fades away and we become mentors to others.

    Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated on this!

  7. Frans says:

    Hey Scott,

    I could be considered a person who juggles multiple fairly easy projects at the same time. Do you have any advice pertaining on how to make the switch to the big, hard and interesting projects? And how do you motivate yourself to do the so called hard to do work?

    Thanks in advance!

  8. Last year I began an experiment and the result has been so espectacular that I
    have embraced this as a major criteria for my live. The test: go abroad and take
    a full course load with subjects like ampliation of compilers.

    Yes, the plan is so crazy that I am the most stupid Erasmus ever.

    But hell I am having an awesome time.

    Some would say this post comes off-time for me but I say thank you Scott ;)

  9. Zoey says:

    Scotty,

    Very good post! I do agree with most of your points. I also think that challenges should be taken in moderation. I see learning as a ladder. It should be done step by step. Challenges do keep life interesting but if you take too many at once not only that you will burn out but you will also take a risk to make many mistakes that might be costly in the future. You are doing this challenge because you have advanced to that level and you know it is possible to be done. For you it was a step by step process. I am sure even the strongest weight lifter once started with a light weight.

    Can’t wait to see you again!

  10. Scott Young says:

    Thanks Zoe!

    Stephan,

    I’ve had the privilege of being able to have had a lot of great mentors, although most of them came after I started to do hard things, not before.

    People I would consider mentors and role models include:

    -Ramit Sethi, for online marketing and building an information business
    -Cal Newport, for writing
    -Benny Lewis, for languages and self-confidence
    -David Zinger

    and many others. Having role models and mentors is important, but if you’re already the kind of person who takes on interesting challenges, then it’s a lot easier to find those people.

    Frans,

    Read a lot of Cal Newport, eliminate most your ongoing commitments and pick something to get obsessed about.

    -Scott

  11. Jonathan says:

    I dislike these “Laws of living”. They aren’t scientific facts, so trusting in them isn’t a smart risk. I believe it’s more productive to say what you know for certain; even if it’s not the grand scope you wish for it to be. To revise this post I would say ‘ I have found that by challenging myself I have become happier’ or w/e. By saying this it gives me an idea and an expected result. I could really set myself back if i were to follow you blindly and make important decisions based on this info. Just a note for the readers.

  12. Hi Scott,

    Amazing mantra. It is simple though put yourself under a personal challenge.

    I also like your realistic vision about where the limit should be for the hardness for your challenge – although I also think it very personal.

    Thanks for sharing

  13. usexpat says:

    Wow Jonathan, you’ve either never taken a big risk or you have a lot of fear and won’t act on it. Guess what? We all have fear! I think this post is spot-on. This is how I’ve been living my life for 20+ years and I’m not at all the same person as I was in my 20’s. FAILURE IS NOT A BAD THING people. Take the big risk, fail a few hundred times if you have to but keep going. Sometimes we’re not ready for the lesson yet so you just keep going to you get it.

  14. Tanya says:

    Scott, thank you for this article. What is your opinion about challenges that might be too much of a stretch? If someone finds themselves completely out of their league?

    I just recently took on a new job because I wanted to challenge myself. However, I’m finding that I might be in over my head. It is said that in 3-6 months a person should have a certain level of comfort with their jobs. Well I am 7 months in and am still overwhelmed. I have found unfortunately that my confidence has taken a significant dive (it was already low to begin with) since taking this job. To leave now would mean I would have gained very little and suffered enormously.

    Do I stick it out and try to make things better?

  15. Tara Rodden Robinson says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I enjoyed your post. A couple of things came to mind.

    “How bad is burnout really?” I’ve experienced burnout that took months to recover from. So burnout can be quite bad and can damage your health, relationships, and career. I wouldn’t say avoid it at all costs but I do advocate doing challenging work in sane, sustainable ways.

    “The only way to ensure you never feel burnt out is to never do anything difficult.” This statement really gets under my skin but I’m at a loss to explain why. I think what bothers me is that it paints burnout as a sort of badge of honor for taking on difficulty. I don’t think burnout is something to be ashamed of, but it’s not a mark of excellence, either. What burnout to me indicates is that I pushed myself beyond my limits and was too stubborn or headstrong to rest. Which, frankly, is not smart.

    Thanks again for the thought provoking post.

    Best wishes,
    Tara

  16. Alex says:

    Great post, I’m a new reader and I’m really enjoying these articles. I’ve decided to pursue a MD/PhD and I know there are some people who’ll try to talk me out of it. However, I know what I want and I’m not afraid of the challenge; I welcome it. Lots of people choose not to do what’s hard because they’re afraid they’ll fail and the people around them will say “Didn’t I tell you so?”

  17. Kim says:

    This is interesting. Your mantra correlates a lot to Cal Newport’s deliberate practice articles. Really narrowing on hard topics is a great way to improve in a relatively shorter amount of time.

  18. Jonathan says:

    Failure is a bad thing compared to success. The smart the risks the better and this just isn’t up to par and fear has nothing to do with it. Normal people, like me, keep failing to improve on our own which is the whole purpose of this website. When you start to look for accurate information you have to pull some weeds. Seeing ideas like these is a big red flag, that is all.

  19. Joe McCarthy says:

    The insights and experience you’ve shared here resonates with me, and I would add the quality of “resilience” to the quality of strength you champion here, especially given the growing stress-hardiness you report as you progress on the MIT challenge.

    Your emphasis on the importance of choosing toward the end of the post reminds me of some wisdom shared by the poet and philosopher, David Whyte – or, rather, by a friend of his, a Franciscan monk named Brother David – “the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness”.

    You’ve probably already seen – and perhaps even blogged about [this is my first visit] – related wisdom shared by Ira Glass on the gap between our ambitions and what we actually produce, and the need to do a lot of work to close that gap. I wrote a bit about this and related wisdom shared by Woody Allen and Robert Pirsig in a post on the gaps, crap and gumption traps in creative work.

  20. Gemma says:

    What kind of obsessions/hard projects/interesting things? Could you just give a few examples please?

  21. Jasmine says:

    From searching for a healthier breakfast option I found my way onto your blog, which is fantastic :)

    I know this mantra works, it maybe only a small example but, If i workout first thing in the morning everything else (physically) is a breeze, i feel like mentally i know for the rest of the day that i’m easilly capable of everything i have to do.. could be just me heh!

  22. Sally says:

    Great article! Trying to grasp what this paragraph meant though;

    “The second is to make it clear that the difficulty should be in the constraints. Once the constraints are established, you should try to make accomplishing it as easy as possible.”

    Anyone?

  23. Nathan says:

    Awesome post Scott!

    Have you developed any assesment methods that others interested in learning like the MIT Challenge can benchmark against to estimate how much time we might need to complete a course? For example, in your e-book you have the reading speed/compression test which is really great. I can use it to estimate how much time I should set aside to finish a book. Any recommendations for time to complete a course, taking into account different learning speeds and available free time?

  24. Jonathan says:

    Sally, what he means is that when you setup your goal, you will have constraints. For his MIT challenge his constraint was to learn all those classes in 12 months. The difficulty is set from his clearly stated goal. If you have made it difficult enough, then you can focus completely on accomplishing it using the easiest means necessary. I think the word easy can be confusing because the challenge is supposed to be difficult. I would say he means that you shouldn’t make it harder through your methodology (like juggling while studying).

    Hope I helped.

  25. Sally says:

    Got it. The goal is already difficult enough, so make the process of reaching that goal easy…thanks Jonathan!

  26. Scott Young says:

    Tara,

    I can remember studying for a 100% commercial law exam the next morning during a night flight back to Winnipeg after getting a couple hours of sleep each night flying around and competing (and losing) non-stop. After nearly a year of fighting, losing sleep and being forced to do things which disturbed my conscience, I was so burnt out I had to leave the country for a year.

    I’m not saying burnout is a nice feeling, I’m just saying that failure is part of the cost of taking risks. Of course, ideally having projects which you can escape if they turn out to be too difficult is good, that also isn’t always feasible.

    Nathan,

    It’s hard to say, for classes where I’m not doing mandatory assignments (in that I sample from them to learn, but my goal is only to pass the final exam) I’ve kept my time between 4 days at the minimum to 8 at the maximum. My sense is that the difficulty is primarily in wrapping your head around the concepts, which can come quickly or slowly depending on whether you find the right perspective early enough.

    Tanya,

    If it’s too hard you might have to pull the plug. That’s a judgment call and not an easy one.

    Jonathan,

    If you haven’t already guessed, everything I write on this website is my advice based on my experiences–not scientific facts. I don’t think anyone should follow any of my advice blindly (or anyone elses for that matter)

    -Scott

  27. Aaron says:

    This is an awesome mantra, Scott. I have found exactly the same thing, and have played with variations on this mantra for a few years. My current mantra is “play at your level, or just above.”

    A Tibetan saying stuck with me: “When two paths open before you, take the harder path.” – from the Tibetan movie, Himalaya.

    Yeah, on the front end, it seems scary and counter-intuitive, even dumb, to do hard things for the sake of doing hard things. But in hindsight, the results speak for themselves. More happiness, a sense of progress, thrill and adventure.

    I really appreciate the challenge in this post. Thank you.

    Also, doing fewer, more important things is crucial. My accompanying mantra is “do more of less.”

  28. […] box or from taking on a challenging goal.  In fact, as Scott H. Young writes pushing yourself to do hard things causes you and by proxy your business to […]

  29. […] state of Zen-like calm in your work then you’re doing something wrong. When I suggested that occasional burnout wasn’t such a bad thing, I got dozens of rebuttals that stress was a demon to be avoided at all […]

  30. […] without taking chances and challenging ourselves; the same can be said for your business life.  Facing challenges and overcoming them builds confidence in business owners and creates the motivation to continue […]

  31. […] Twitchy.’ I don’t mean that failure is acceptable, I mean that when you’re doing hard things, you inevitably try things that don’t work the first […]

  32. Matt says:

    Dude, I LOVE your thoughts and ideas. I discovered you from your Youtube video on Richard Feynman.

    I noticed a couple weeks ago before reading this post, how challenges make you BETTER at what you’re doing.

  33. Marilyn Jess says:

    I just Googled “Do Hard Things” and your post came up. I am proud to share this URL on my Author page today.

    I think it’s really crucial to not confuse doing hard things with multitasking–the latter is something people seem to take pride in. However, our brains were not designed to multitask. Research proves it. Looking at a phone screen all day, in place of quality silence and interacting with our world doesn’t count, either. That is not Hard, that is distraction.

    Your post brings up important ideas, thank you!

  34. Joseph says:

    “Don’t take an easy goal and make it needlessly difficult.”

    A great quote on its own.

    Excellent read – exactly what I need to hear at this time.

    Thanks for writing it.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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