Reminder: What’s Worthwhile Will Be Difficult
The art of embracing twists and turns in your life’s story
“Are you in it now?” she asked me with a smile on her face. “You’re in it, aren’t you?” She raised her eyebrows in a way that said “I know I’m right” but that also kind of said “I’m excited for you” at the same time. We’d only just met at a weekend workshop in Boston, but she could see what lost looks like from across the room.
“I’ve been there,” she told me with the reassurance of someone who was now safely ensconced on the other side. “It took me on a path I couldn’t have predicted. But don’t think I didn’t spend three years crying in the shower every morning before I started to make progress,” she counselled.
It sucks when you’re “in it”. In the shit. Questioning what you know. Working through things that are painful. Feeling lost and struggling up-hill.
I hiked up a volcano once in Guatemala. On the ascent, I encountered these portions of steep incline made up of ash and small, sharp volcanic rocks. Every other step felt like it took me backwards rather than forwards as I sank my foot into the soft ground, sending gravel skidding downwards behind me and having the effect of walking on a stair master rather than up a physical plane in the real world.
It felt like I was getting nowhere. But to see the plume of smoke billowing from the crater and the thin red line of lava slowly carving a line down the black rock, to hear the crackling rumble of small landslides as rocks became dislodged in the molten path… It was worth it.
And then the descent was just as tough.
Getting anywhere good is hard work. Working on yourself. Working on your life. Admitting something isn’t working. Changing tack. Changing your mind.
You have to be prepared to confront what you find. What you find, you have to act on, or you’ll be even more miserable than when you started. And acting on it can be even more difficult than the working out. It feels like stumbling around in a dark room trying to plug in a USB device the right way up on the first try.
It’s why a great many of us avoid it altogether — it’s easier to give up.
Part of what discourages us is that this isn’t what it’s “supposed” to look like. Except it is. We just don’t always see someone’s working out.
I think often of this doodle by Demetri Martin on what people think success looks like, versus what it’s actually like:
I would update it slightly because these days, as we shift fast from career to career and even faster from job to job, I think many of us aren’t just taken on loops and ups and downs towards the goal — we change the goal itself as we encounter forks in the road and have to start saying ‘no’ to entire paths. Up ahead we’re more like leap-frogging from point to point rather than having any clear trajectory when we start out. The end arrow is more like a hazy question mark.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
— Steve Jobs
But we often only see the end point. We don’t always show the messier side of this process. The incoherent parts. The difficult decisions. The days it’s tough to get out of bed, that start to stretch into weeks.
We like a good story, which needs a beginning, middle, and end. Even though we know that life so often isn’t this linear. And we’re very often perpetually in a middle of some kind. And nothing lasts.
But when we focus too much on the simple success story narrative, where the struggle is just a minor plot point to the climactic destination, we do a disservice to those who are “in it”. Which is most of us, most of the time.
The truth is, most of our time is spent trying to climb the mountain, not enjoying the view from the peak. Partly because when we arrive, we immediately want to set off on the next one. Our brains are hard-wired for it. Arriving is not the reward — it’s a trigger to us to go seek it again or seek even greater ones.
The truth is, linearity is all about following the existing rules, which will not birth anything novel or interesting. It’s comfortable though. It’s clear and straightforward. It’s easy.
The truth is, we learn more from what went wrong than what went right. Difficulty breeds resilience. Challenge fosters innovation. Struggle leads to change.
We need more purposeful examples of what happens when we’re “in it.” So that we can normalise this part of the process. So that we know what it takes.
I liked that in Lady Gaga’s recent award speech, she mentioned how hard she worked to get to that podium. As the audience, we could just see it as a ‘ta-da’ moment of success by someone with some natural talent, luck, and good timing. She made sure we knew this didn’t happen over night.
“If you are at home and you’re sitting on your couch and you’re watching this right now, all I have to say is this is hard work. I have worked hard for a long time and it’s not about winning. What it’s about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. There’s a discipline for passion: it’s not about how many times you get rejected or you fall down and get beaten up, but how many times you stand up, and are brave and you keep on going.”
— Lady Gaga
So I’m writing this while “in it,” rather than waiting for it to just be part of a retrospective. I’m confronting parts of myself that I have long avoided — my insecurities, my fears. I’m leaning in to uncertainty and vulnerability. I’m spending a lot of time learning and more and more time applying what I learn.
I’ve been traveling for six months and discovered a lot. I’ve identified what I want for myself. I’ve made some decisions that I now need to act on.
If I were to show my working, it looks a little something like this at the moment. It’s fulfilling a dream to live in a city I’ve always wanted to come to and feeling depressed, but writing anyway. It’s being tired of doing everything alone and recognising that I need to be closer to the deep relationships in my life. It’s loving, and losing, and trying to receive these lessons with gratitude even as I don’t always muster it with grace.
I’m tired. I’m lonely. Some days involve crying in the shower. But I’m still moving forward. I know have the tools to do so.
And I’m glad for kind strangers who tell me how hard it was for them to get to where they are — both for their example of persevering to achieve what they wanted to and for being open and honest about what it took to get there.