The Problem with “Hard”

At the end of last week's piece, I pointed out that even a talent as seemingly innate as walking actually requires a great deal of practice before we become proficient, which led to a question: What do we call things that are available to anyone with normal abilities--things like soccer or skiing or learning a language or learning to play an instrument--but require dedicated practice to be able to do? Are they easy or hard?

We tend to call things that require a lot of practice hard. But I propose we're doing ourselves a disservice in two different ways by choosing that term: first, by calling something hard we make it hard; and second, calling something hard allows us to stay safely in our comfort zone rather than entering into the discomfort required to undergo any process of change.

When we call something hard, we expect to struggle, so we struggle. When we struggle, we fight with our bodies and our experience. We tense up. We get frustrated. We run from what we're doing. In short, we set ourselves up to fail.

But if we eschew the word hard and simply say that these activities require well-directed, concentrated practice, then we don't need to struggle. We just need to be awake to the experience. We need to stay centered, and to breathe, and to accept that we won't immediately excel at the activity. All we really need to do is commit to the experience of quality practice, 95% of which is showing up, concentrating, and engaging in repetition.

By using the word hard to describe a skill that requires commitment to a practice, we give ourselves an excuse to not make the commitment. After all, who will blame us? No one blames anyone for choosing not to do something hard.

I am hardly the first person to note that we struggle with change. It scares us. We prefer to stay in our comfort zone. We know it there. We are familiar with it and, though we may be less fully realized than we'd like to be, in that comfortable place we know we can survive because we've done it for so long. A commitment to a practice, on the other hand, forces us to live with uncertainty, for the practice will, by definition, change us.

Any process of self-growth invariably threatens the ego because the ego seeks to see itself as fixed. So within the ego, the two problems with hard combine. The ego wants to be special. It wants the aggrandizement of doing something we call hard, while at the same time fighting against change.

Aggrandizement is rarely the outcome for anyone who engages honestly in a practice. Much more common is a double dose of humility. On the one hand, when we recognize that the difference between ability and not is the willingness to commit to a practice, we recognize that anyone can do it. We become, in the egoic sense, the opposite of special. On the other hand, when engaging in a practice of sufficient depth, we are forced to learn that there is no destination, no end point. No matter how deep into the practice we get, there is always more to learn. No matter how much mastery you may attain, you'll always be a student.

This realization is profoundly freeing. Not that we are henceforth and forever free from frustration and the like, but instead of either living in some distant future where our ego is stoked by our expertise in something we've accomplished or, worse, using the notion of hard to never take the risk of trying at all, we begin to move, finally, truly into the present.

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