The Challenge of Doing Hard Things
She was a bundle of nerves as she stepped into the moment that would define her. Sure, she could’ve taken the easy way out, let someone else do the hard work for her. But she needed to do this, to prove to herself that she could work hard and accomplish something.
She looked back at her friends, a mixture of people who had taken the same path she was now taking before and those who would never rise above because they didn’t have the drive that she had. Or, at least, the drive she hoped she had.
She stepped up to the cabinet where the pencil sharpener stood waiting for her. She took in a deep breath and inserted the brand new yellow pencil her teacher had given her and gripped the handle of the sharpener.
This was it. All she had to do was turn, and she’d be the owner of a freshly sharpened pencil, ready to work on the day’s assignment. She willed her hand to turn. The stopped.
She pulled the pencil out of the sharpener and rushed back to her teacher.
“What’s the problem?” he said.
“Can I just go ask one of the other teachers down the hall if I can borrow a pencil that’s already sharpened?”
He gave her an incredulous look. “Why don’t you just sharpen that one?” he said, pointing to the pencil in her hand.
She looked him dead in the eyes and said, “That’s too much work.”
This story is slightly exaggerated, though not by much. The girl, a high school sophomore in summer school, never made it to the sharpener before she told me that sharpening a pencil was “too much work” and forever changed my worldview about the future of humanity.
As a teacher, I work with students every single day. Some of them are motivated; an alarming number of them simply are not.
I used to believe that we need to challenge students to do hard things, but I wonder if we’ve wrongly gauged what students understood as hard things. Until yesterday, I’d never heard a student tell me that sharpening a pencil was too much work. She literally didn’t want to exert the energy it took to sharpen a pencil; she wanted someone else to do the work for her.
This girl is like many of the students I and the other teachers at my high school interact with on a daily basis. We teach content and skills, we ask questions, and they look at us like we’re asking them to jump from a plane without a parachute. The glazed over look in their eyes transforms into a look of disinterest as they just settle on, “I don’t know. I don’t understand.”
Of course, students sometimes don’t understand, but what I’ve noticed all too often is that students are unwilling to exert the prerequisite level of thought required to truly say, “I don’t understand.” They give up if the answer isn’t immediately available to them and hope that someone else knows the answer.
This isn’t an issue of intelligence; it’s an issue of focus. I love smartphones as much as the next guy, but I watch students every day consumed by their screens. Smartphones do an awful lot of our thinking for us. They’re distracting, and most students don’t have the drive to be responsible about how much control they give to a device that fits in their pockets but feels most at home in their hands.
I’m an adult, and I find it hard to focus on things much of the time because of my smartphone. I could be writing, but then I find myself playing Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes or scrolling my Twitter feed. Any moment of downtime, even the tiniest amount, feels like it needs to be filled with something, and the phone is always there, ready to make promises it can’t keep.
When sharpening a pencil is too much work, humanity is in trouble. In a world of participation trophies, we’re encouraging a generation of people who will one day be in charge to do the least amount possible to get by.
Instead, we need to redefine “hard things” and challenge students to genuinely focus on one thing for extended periods of time. My daughter, who is nine, amazes me at her ability to focus. She’s been going to Hour of Code every week this summer, and while some of the other kids will give up quickly because they get frustrated, she keeps her mind on the task until she figures it out. Failure or quitting aren’t options for her.
Students need a governing narrative in which focus and thinking are paramount and failure and quitting don’t exist. Then we can move beyond pencil sharpening as “too much work” to doing real hard things that will change the world.
Tom Farr is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who believes in crafting lies to tell the truth. When he’s not enjoying the good life with his beautiful wife Lindsey and their three much-adored children, he’s striving to create stories that thrill and inspire and preparing for the day Disney calls him to write a Star Wars movie. His work has also appeared on Panel & Frame, Wordhaus, Curiosity Never Killed the Writer, The Write Practice, and The Unsplash Book. Check out his fiction writing portfolio on Medium.