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If It’s Not Hard, It’s Not Hard Enough

Every time a television advertisement talks about “making life easier”—and there are many, many such advs—I feel a pitch of annoyance. Of course, I understand why the phrase is used so liberally in messages intended to make people buy things. Commercial products and services often do make certain parts of life (fixing dinner, getting stains out of clothes) seem easier. I’d be lying if I told you I’ve never bought something with the expectation that it would ameliorate a headache in my daily life (like opening wine bottles). But the value assumption upon which this marketing promise is based—that a life of total ease is desirable and only a weirdo would feel otherwise—rubs me the wrong way. I want to snap at the voiceover actor, “Speak for yourself! The rest of your target market might want an easy life, but I, for one, do not.”

What I do want is a happy life, and an easy life is not a happy life. Anyone who’s ever written a book says it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done. I’ve written more than thirty books. It never gets easier, but being a writer has brought me consistent happiness. Running a marathon is also hard. I’ve run more than fifty of them. A few of those marathons were not only hard but devastating, but still, as with my writing, being a runner has brought me consistent happiness. Starting a company is hard too, and I’ve now started three of them. I never wanted to be an entrepreneur, but it turns out that it’s just hard enough to bring me consistent happiness. Safe to say, if I wanted an easy life, I’m going about it all wrong.

One thing that all of these examples have in common is that they are chosen hardships. But what about hardships that just happen, and that no self-respecting adult would choose? Here again I must disappoint the advertisers. True, I would never have chosen the greatest hardships I’ve experienced in my life, including my wife’s struggle with bipolar disorder and my own ongoing struggle with long covid. Yet despite the immeasurable suffering these tragedies have inflicted upon me, I can say with perfect honesty that I never once wished they hadn’t happened. Instead I accepted them as things that had happened and focused on rising to the challenge they presented in a way that at least made me a better man if not a happier one. To paraphrase Dostoevsky, I greet suffering as an opportunity to be worthy of my suffering. So, although I wouldn’t choose any particular hardship that befalls me, I also wouldn’t choose an easy life devoid of tragic hardships that inflict immeasurable suffering upon me. I really wouldn’t.

I don’t know how many other people feel this way. Somebody should do a survey. In the meantime, my guess is that more people think they would prefer a life devoid of unchosen hardships than actually would prefer it if they got it. When everything is easy, existential dread steps in to take the place of struggle and suffering. It’s human nature: either we’re worried about something tangible like poor health or we’re worried about literally nothing. Either way, we’re worried. Pick your poison.

But what do I know? I’m just an endurance coach. Athletes need to hear this message too, though. Oftentimes, when one of my athletes is experiencing unchosen hardships in their training, they start to act as though they don’t want their sport to be hard—as though they did not consciously choose one of the hardest hobbies a person could possibly choose for himself or herself. That’s why I came up with the slogan that serves as the title of this article. I use it to remind athletes—and to get them to remind themselves—that they really do want their sport to be hard.

Not only does this slogan look great on a tee shirt, but it also has the virtue of being true. Don’t believe me? Consider what happens when a runner hits a so-called purple patch in their training, where everything comes easy. They crush every workout and surprise themselves by setting a personal best in a low-key tune-up race done several weeks before their “A” race. What happens next? You guessed it: They ratchet up their remaining training and set a more aggressive goal for that “A” race. Because as much as they enjoyed the easiness of their purple patch, they recognized it as a problem to be fixed. Because as much as they might want their automobile maintenance to be easy, they don’t want their sport to be easy!

So, the next time you find yourself getting frustrated over unchosen hardships in your athletic experience, remind yourself: If it’s not hard, it’s not hard enough.