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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