Different Kinds of Difficulty

How difficult is it to learn a new language, start a business, or write a book? These are common questions, but unfortunately the answers you’ll get from people aren’t very satisfying. The problem is that the word “difficulty” is horribly imprecise.

There are different kinds of difficulty, and although the English language likes to lump them together, they have different causes and solutions. Depending on what kind of difficulty you’re facing, the proper course of action might be to buckle down or despair.

Luck Difficulty versus Effort Difficulty

The first distinction is whether the difficulty depends mostly on effort or not. If something is difficult, but the outcome doesn’t depend much on effort, then it depends on luck. Winning the lottery is difficult, but there’s not really much you can do to increase your chances.

When people talk about difficulty they confuse these two types all the time. Building a well-read blog is difficult. But it’s mostly effort difficulty and not luck difficulty. Yes—the success of individual articles depends a great deal on luck. But if you’re experimenting constantly and have a patience that spans decades, not weeks, the luck part evens out and it mostly becomes a matter of effort.

Learning a language is also mostly effort and not luck. Yes, some people are born with a bit more verbal ability in their genes. But the real difference is how many hours you put in.

One-Time Luck or Ongoing Luck

There are different kinds of luck difficulty as well. Some are one-time. I’ll probably never be a successful jockey—my height and weight would make it impossible to compete against the best. That was a bit of genetic luck whose dice have already been rolled.

Other types of luck are ongoing. Writing a best-selling book depends a lot on luck. But it’s also dice you can roll over and over again. The more you roll, the greater long-run odds you have of writing a bestseller. The greater your horizon for patience is, the more this type of difficulty can be transformed into effort difficulty.

Vertical Difficulty versus Horizontal Difficulty

Vertical difficulty is something that is hard to do, in one go. A one-armed chin-up is vertically difficult. Horizontal difficulty is hard to do, in summation. Walking 100km is horizontally difficult.

Olle introduces this concept with regards to the perceived difficulty of learning Chinese. Correctly pronouncing tones is vertically difficult, but learning vocabulary is horizontally difficult. From my own time studying Chinese, I agree with Olle, that it’s mostly horizontal, not vertical, difficulty.

Both vertical difficulty and horizontal difficulty reduce down to effort difficulty. Not everyone can do a one-arm chin-up, but if you trained for a couple years, you could probably do it. Similarly, walking 100km (as long as it’s not in one go) is doable by everyone, it just takes a long time.

The distinction here is that the two difficulties require different mental approaches. Vertical difficulty requires aggressive experimentation and the ability to work hard at a goal for long periods without positive feedback. Horizontal difficulty requires patience and stable habits.

Probing Difficulty

It’s often a good idea to ask someone about the difficulty of a task before you start it, to help you know what to expect. However, as I said in the introduction, that question often doesn’t have a satisfying answer. You can make it better, by asking questions to elicit what type of difficulty you’re facing.

Here are some questions to figure out whether you’re dealing with luck or effort difficulty:

  • “Could anyone achieve this goal, given they worked hard at it?”
  • “Is effort the main distinction between successes and failures?”
  • “If I spent ten years working on this goal, could I be confident of success?”

Here are some questions to figure out whether the luck involved is one time, or repeated:

  • “Will the chances of success change if I keep working at it?”
  • “Are there a lot of ‘naturals’ who get incredible results with little practice?”
  • “Does success depend on fixed personal characteristics I must possess?”

Here are some to figure out whether the effort is vertical or horizontal:

  • “Is success a relatively straightforward process, or does it require a lot of experimentation?”
  • “How important is technique or form, compared with simple repetitions?”
  • “Should I spend a lot of time optimizing my performance or just focus on consistent output?”

How to Handle Different Kinds of Difficulty

If the difficulty is mostly one-time luck, the solution is straightforward: assess whether the dice have already been rolled in your favor. If they haven’t, decide how much effort could compensate for your bad roll and figure out whether it’s worth the work.

If the difficulty is mostly luck, but it’s repeated, you need to optimize for patience. Detach yourself from the results because it’s mostly noise, not signal. Instead, focus on output, every day, and steel yourself against the possibility that your struggle might end tomorrow or it might take years.

If the difficulty is mostly vertical, get aggressive. Learn everything you can about how success works. Seek a coach. Expect to not see progress after many attempts, but eventually to find a path to breaking through.

If the difficulty is mostly horizontal, be patient and focus on small gains. Celebrate little improvements, which could be as simple as learning a new word or going an extra 25 meters in your morning jog. Embrace boredom and build habits that stay the same for years.

Of course, the real world is ambiguous and mixed. Difficulties are never entirely luck or effort, vertical or horizontal. You must make a decision about which predominates and let that guide you. You might be wrong—I used to treat writing success as mostly vertical, but now I see it as being mostly horizontal. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a new outlook.

Most importantly, don’t treat all difficult tasks the same way. Some difficulty requires acceptance, aggression, responsiveness or stoicism. Knowing which kind you are facing makes all the difference.

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