Easy or Hard?

The question arose because there's never any shortage of skiers on the mountain, and most of them are able to tackle at least intermediate terrain: is skiing easy or hard?

The more I thought about it, the less clear the answer became. On the one hand, most people can learn the rudiments of skiing in a day and achieve what we think of as basic intermediate proficiency within a week. On the other hand, it takes most people years of practice to really get good at it.

The more closely I looked at the question, the more I came to feel that there's a problem contained in the words themselves. Easy and hard are so abstract and imprecise that they confuse our understanding of the world.

Imagine you are standing on the shore of a lake, right at the water's edge, holding a small rock in your hand. You want to throw the rock into the water. The lake is big and you are standing right next to it: for anyone older than, say, two, it is essentially impossible to fail. I think we can safely call this easy.

Now imagine you are standing ten feet from a swimming pool with that rock's identical twin. Can you throw the rock into the swimming pool? Clearly, this is slightly harder, but most of us will succeed most or almost all of the time.

Now, imaginary rocks in hand, start imagining different sizes of and distances from your body of water. Interestingly, we use the same word, hard, to describe throwing the rock into a bucket 30 feet away and throwing the rock into a lake from 50 or 60 or 70 yards. The former is within our physical capacity--we can throw the rock that far--but we may lack the precision to succeed very often. On the other hand, there is a certain distance beyond which we simply lack the physical gifts to throw the rock, no matter how big the target. But notice, too, that a professional baseball outfielder might struggle with the precision of tossing the rock into a bucket, but would have a 100%-success rate throwing the rock into a lake from a distance that for the rest of us would be impossible.

There are things that are beyond our current abilities but which might be attainable with practice. And there are things that are simply beyond the physical capabilities of most but not all people. These are two very different things, but we call them both hard.

So here's another question: is learning to walk hard or easy? Don't answer too quickly. The toddler just learning to walk falls down an awful lot. It takes her many days of practice before she becomes adept at it. Therefore learning to walk is hard. But on the other hand, by the time she's a certain age, she'll be, like all of us, perfectly comfortable with walking. Indeed, no one needs lessons to learn to walk. Therefore learning to walk is easy.

So then, back to our original question: is skiing (or soccer, or golf, or learning to speak Spanish or play the piano) easy or hard?

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