In defense of doing things the hard way

The danger of creating a path instead of following one is far more important than the feeling you get resting at the apex.

AJ Leon

I’ve been thinking about the process of getting better at the things we do, the shortcuts we trick ourselves into taking to get there, and how those shortcuts inevitably lead us down the wrong paths.

This week another new service launched to “help you build an engaging online reputation” by letting individuals and brands buy followers on whatever social networks float their boats. Step 2 in their process is describes as follows: “Relax and watch your reputation grow.” Let’s skip some of the obvious gaps in this story, like what it means to have an “engaging reputation”, or the fact that number of followers is not the biggest driver of online influence. Let’s skip all that to talk about a deeper question: why are we so unwilling to work hard for the things that we want?

Think about a time when you learned to do something really difficult. Maybe it was learning to ride a skateboard, figuring out a new math equation, or debugging your first piece of code. Do you remember the strain, the frustration, and the countless failures? And do you also remember the enormous satisfaction you felt as you slowly mastered that task? Do you remember how doing it the hard way carried with it not only the benefits of learning that skill, but also many tangential thoughts or experiences that sparked new passions or interests?

When we do things the hard way, we invest in ourselves in the best possible way. We kick off an endless cycle of learning and mastery that helps us grow and lead fulfilling lives of purpose. When we take shortcuts, we become mere pretenders. We learn how to play the part, but there is no substance or continued growth. The instant gratification makes us build the house of cards ever higher, which brings anxiety about the whole thing coming tumbling down. Why would we shortchange ourselves like that?

Cal Newport nailed it when he said, “There is no avoiding the deliberate strain of real improvement.” If you want to become a better writer, read more and publish more. If you want to learn to design/code/fly, watch fewer episodes of Downton Abbey and practice the things that don’t come easy. And if you really want more Twitter followers, make and share things that are awesome, and be patient.

In short, to quote Frank Chimero, do things the long, hard, stupid way.