Doing Hard Things

I ran a cross-country race sponsored by the US Track and Field Association a few weeks back. The weather was wet and drizzly and much of the course was a muddy mess from the rains of the past several days. Like all runners my feet were slipping and sliding. I was taking short steps and spreading my feet apart to avoid going down. At the halfway point I realized how hard I was breathing and just how much I was laboring.

And then I got wondering what the heck I was doing out here on a Saturday morning. I didn’t need this misery. I could have been wrapped in the warm covers of my bed, enjoying a nice breakfast with my wife, getting a head start on my to-do list, or browsing some interesting articles on the internet.

And yet here I was, working hard, pushing myself almost to the point of exhaustion, ruining a perfectly good pair of running shoes and slogging through mud and yuck. FOR WHAT?

The experience got me thinking about how it is that we’re able to make ourselves do hard things, especially when we don’t have to because there is an easier path. Here are a few realizations I’d like to share with you as I’ve continued to think this through.

  • Physical exertion feels good. It is like waking my body and bringing it to life. I’m more aware of it, not taking it for granted, feeling sensations not available at every moment. There is something pleasurable about this.
  • Some of it is the thrill of competition, not against other people but myself. Just how well can I do? How much stamina do I have? How much mastery of my mind over my body? Competition awakens my spirit and helps me know that I can achieve certain outcomes through will and desire. Events don’t just happen. I can influence them and bend them to my will.
  • There are rewards at the end of doing hard things. An outcome has been accomplished or achieved, something that would not have been possible without effort. The reward is not a given. It has to be earned. And we usually value these rewards. They are a why and motivation to do hard things.
  • One form of reward is a sense of pride that comes with victory. I feel good about myself when I accomplish something hard. It may be as simple as thinking or knowing, “I did it!” This isn’t the same as praise from other people. It’s private, a metaphorical fist pump and affirmation of me.
  • It’s also rewarding to stop. Slowing down, knowing that the exertion is over (at least for today) is rewarding. The state of rest and relaxation are far more pleasurable following exertion than following ease or a path of least resistance. It feels like they’ve been earned.
  • There are also social rewards. Other people notice and comment. We’re social beings and enjoy hearing affirming words from others. But beyond this, it is fun to associate, talk and share “stories of the trail” with like-minded people.

Of course, as I write these words I’m aware that I’m talking about much more than running a race on a Saturday morning. We all face the prospect (or opportunity) to do hard things, not just physically but mentally, emotionally, and socially. It may be hard to learn a skill necessary to improve your work prospects. It may be hard to have a needed conversation with your boss or a co-worker. It may be hard to meet the emotional needs and demands of young children. It may be hard to make a phone call or fulfill a particular task or assignment. And so on. And what may be hard for one may not be hard for another. There is really little use in comparing in the game of life.

But I can tell you that we have to learn to do hard things if we’re going to succeed. Define success however you choose. Real success requires that we develop the discipline to do hard things. Look at anyone who has succeeded in any field or endeavor—an athlete, a company leader, a loving mother, a great teacher—and you’ll see someone who has learned to do hard things.

It is such a natural tendency to avoid or procrastinate. We find lots of ways of distracting ourselves from doing hard things. It is easy to follow the path of least resistance.  But we pay a price.  And the biggest price is missing out on all of the rewards that come with doing hard things—the loss of tangible outcomes, diminishing of self-pride, gradual fading of our sense of mastery, failing to enjoy our moments of relaxation.

So, here’s to seeing and loving the rewards, and being willing to put up with the drizzle, the mud and the muck that inevitably come with doing hard things.

About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit>.

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