Why are we so bad at it?

Adam Westbrook
May 16, 2013 · 2 min read

There’s a great quote by Thomas Mann which goes: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

His point is that things are supposed to be difficult. If you’re a writer and you don’t find writing difficult, then perhaps you’re not trying hard enough.

Well, I have a low tolerance for things being difficult.

And I’m coming to realise that I’ve almost made a career out of skirting around the difficult; pursuing instead the easier, less painful - but ultimately wrong - goals.

Doing the difficult thing is the secret to doing work that matters, to making art. It’s the driver of scarcity (and therefore value) in business.

I know this. So why am I so bad at doing difficult things?

Perhaps I can lay the blame on society. That’s a good idea. We’re conditioned by our education and later by marketing to ‘take the easy road’. Everything’s about being more convenient: faster, cheaper, easier.

Or maybe I could blame the successful people, who tell the stories of how they made it, somehow skipping over the difficult bits. No-one talks about Mozart’s miserable years as an in-house composer, or the countless hours that a young David Beckham spent taking practice penalties in the rain.

Or perhaps it’s the fantasy that talented people breeze through life’s achievements that does it. We imagine Walt Disney humming away while sketching another perfect Mickey, not pulling his hair out at 3am.

Given this, is it any surprise then that most of us have an allergic reaction to difficult?

But really, there’s only one person I can blame.

And there’s an uncomfortable truth at the bottom of this which Ryan Holiday spells out with his usual blunt force.

The most insidious and disingenuous part is that when we check in on our “progress,” weeks or months later, we’re shocked—SHOCKED—that we haven’t made any.

Of course our wordcount, usercount, cashflow, or understanding are exactly the same. Of course we’re still stuck. We didn’t do shit.

We didn’t do the difficult.

This is the point where a writer offers a strategy to their readers. I wish I could, but there isn’t one in this case. Except to roll your sleeves up and get to work - the difficult work, and take whatever comfort you can in the fact that it is meant to be difficult.

Which is, of course, precisely why I’ve sat down this morning to write a post on Medium, complete with a custom made banner, which I carefully edited in Photoshop.

Instead of doing something that might actually bring me closer to where I’m supposed to be.

The difficult thing.

UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up, which you can read here.

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    Adam Westbrook

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    Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity.

    I. M. H. O.

    The Editorial Page

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