Stop Asking for Easy: A Manifesto for Doing Hard Things Voluntarily

Marcel Hagener and Simone Maier, Red Bull Defiance Adventure Race, New Zealand. Photo: Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

If our American culture has one fatal flaw, it is our obsession with comfort. In almost every aspect of the so-called “American Dream,” the main goal, the main objective, is achieving a state of comfort, insulating and protecting ourselves from the difficulties and challenges in the world around us.
The default question that the average American asks is, “what’s the easiest way? What is the path of least resistance, the easiest way for me to achieve a state of comfort?”
Before I go on, you have to check out this Facebook video posted by #besomebody:

#BeSomebody hits the proverbial nail on the head in this video because so often, we ask for easy. We want to be comfortable.

Here are a couple of the many problems caused by our love of comfort:

Problem 1: Too Often, We Expect Things to Simply Be Given to Us

"The problem is that everybody wants the prize, but nobody wants to pay the price. Nobody's willing to put in the work." -#BeSomebody
Simply put, this is the entitlement problem that is running rampant in our culture today. Because we exist, because we're taking up space and pulling oxygen into our lungs, we expect that accolades, successes, and all of the best fruits of life should be given to us as our inherent, deserved reward.

The reality is that anything good in life, anything worth having, is not easy to achieve. It takes a lot of work, dedication, and sweat of the brow in order to secure for ourselves the things that we want in life. Whether it be possessions, fame, experiences, freedom, time, money, adventure, relationships, true purpose... none of these things are deposited into our laps simply because our mothers chose to embrace difficulty and pain to birth us into this world.

Problem 2: We Give Up when Things Get Difficult

"Nobody is willing to eat their own shit to make it happen." -#BeSomebody
Even if someone has successfully made the mental leap from Problem 1 to deciding, "Oh, I should do something to go out and achieve this impressive goal on my own," too often the moment things get hard, we give up.

We begin to spiritualize the difficulties that we face with phrases like, "oh, it wasn't meant to be." "God shut that door for me." "The universe didn't actualize my desire."

Instead of persevering through the difficulty, our resolve crumbles in the face of adversity. When the going gets tough, work, resilience, and effort are required.

Solution: Choosing to Challenge Yourself

Malcolm Patterson, Red Bull Defiance Adventure Race, New Zealand. Photo: Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

Do you know what the least comfortable thing in the world is? Doing hard things, voluntarily.

The solution to the problems above is choosing to challenge yourself. Choosing to put yourself through difficulty and adversity and hardships.

Sure, persevering through hardships that are thrust upon you, surviving a deadly conflict that you had no choice in and in no way caused yourself, is indeed admirable, and many biographies have been written about such people. But in my opinion, even more admirable are the people who persevere through such an epic atrocity (say, a Holocaust concentration camp), but then afterwards choose to voluntarily still do hard things that they don't have to do, like becoming a public speaker or writing a book.

The choice, in fact, is the key. Choosing to challenge yourself when you don't have to can transform your life, turning you into a tougher, more resilient human being.

Jocko Willink, an ex-Navy Seal Commander, puts it this way: "if you want to be tougher mentally, it is simple: Be tougher. Don't meditate on it."

Tim Ferriss expands on this quote of Willink's: "'Being tougher' was, more than anything, a decision to be tougher. It's possible to immediately 'be tougher,' starting with your next decision." (Tools of Titans)

It all comes back to the choice. Will you choose to take on a near-impossible task, a goal of epic proportions, a job that you might NOT succeed at? Even for the most dedicated of decision makers, if your goal is truly tremendous, if it not only takes you outside of your comfort zone but takes you so far into the wilderness that you can't even see your comfort zone anymore, this idea can still be daunting and intimidating.

Here's the good news: "it is a myth that you’re either born tough or you’re not. The truth is, toughness, both mental and physical, can and should be trained and cultivated, just like any other skill." (Khaled Allen)

Transforming yourself through voluntary challenges, by choosing to walk through the fire and out the other side a more refined person, provides a multitude of benefits.

Benefit 1: You Are More Equipped to Handle Involuntary Adversity

"In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes." -Seneca, The Moral Letters to Lucilius
As Seneca illustrates above, if you voluntarily train yourself to handle adversity and develop toughness--both mental and physical--you are thereby equipping yourself to deal with the adversity that you're not expecting (the attack of the enemy in the above example).

While we might hope that the only challenges we have to face are the ones that we select ourselves, the reality is that even those challenges, as monumental as they may be, don't have the ability to surprise us, startle us, or kick us when we're already down. The challenges that we don't expect are the ones that can truly cripple us. Things like physical injury, a death in the family, war, natural disaster... the list goes on.

While we can't know what calamity will strike us or when, we can work to make ourselves resilient to these difficulties by choosing to train our bodies and our minds to be tougher.

Benefit 2: Rise Above the Rest by Becoming Superhuman

"If it was easy, then everybody would be doing it, right?" -#BeSomebody
". . .being superhuman means living a life over and beyond that of the normal, average person. Being part of the top percentage, the human elite, who refuse to accept mediocrity in any aspect of life." -Brett McKay
Because of the fatal flaw of the American Dream, the goal of achieving a state of comfort and ease, even if someone makes it through the mental gymnastics required to free their mind and ambitions from the engrained status quo, that isn't enough to find success. Action must follow that transformation of thinking, and if we want those actions to get us anywhere in this struggle of doing difficult things, they must, by definition, be pretty damn difficult.

As highlighted in problem #2 above, when it comes time to act, the majority of people who have been indoctrinated into our culture of comfort can't hack it, or choose not to persevere through the hard times. If you can instead embrace the pain and the discomfort, you've already passed most of the masses. If you can continue to persevere and develop your toughness and resilience, you can rise above the rest of humanity by becoming "superhuman." As Brett McKay defines it above, being superhuman isn't synonymous with being a superhero or a demigod. Rather, it means that you've joined "the top percentage, the human elite, who refuse to accept mediocrity."

More good news for those who are willing to persevere? Almost nobody else is, so becoming one of the human elite is way easier than you might think.

Action Step: Go Mountain Biking

Bob Mclachlan, Red Bull Defiance Adventure Race, New Zealand. Photo: Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

Those of us who claim membership in the mountain biking tribe already have a leg up on the vast majority of humanity, because the basic essence and practice of our sport develops physical and mental toughness.

Just take a read through Khaled Allen's article about training toughness, and look at some of the action steps and takeaways:
  • Allow (or seek out) small inconveniences and discomforts in your everyday life. Learn to tolerate them.
  • Start to judge your internal monologue, rather than simply accepting it for what it is. Actually listen to what you’re saying and decide if it’s a belief you want to let into your life.
  • Expose yourself to rough environments and forgo the usual protection, increasing the intensity of exposure slowly over time.
  • Learn and implement mobility and self-maintenance exercises into your regular training routine.
  • Train with less rest between sets or workouts, but take excellent care of yourself in the meantime.
  • Train outside in all weather with as little protection as you can tolerate.
All of these things can be trained on the mountain bike or in a mountain bike-centric training routine:
  • Small inconveniences and discomforts are rampant in the practice of mountain biking--everything from fixing a broken bike, to a saddle sore.
  • Train positive self talk, as highlighted in this article.
  • Mountain biking takes place in rough environments by default, and if you're embracing a light-and-fast ethos, protection from the elements may only slow you down.
  • Stretching and cross-training are vital to MTB health--here's just one article on the topic.
  • This practice can be critical for those training for ultra endurance stage races or bikepacking events. Instead of always recovering fully between hard rides, in these circumstances the rider needs to prepare for difficult back-to-back efforts.
  • This is called "going for a mountain bike ride in the mountains."
If your mountain bike rides currently feel comfortable and attainable, if you're not feeling like a self-flagellating luddite, then you simply need to ratchet the difficulty level up a notch. Again, the key is choosing to be tougher and challenging yourself voluntarily. Oftentimes, we achieve a level of comfort and complacency through our training, and need to find new goals to challenge ourselves and build to new heights of resilience. Check out Scott Cotter's excellent article "Unleash Your Inner Beast: Why You Need to Do an Endurance Race this Year" for more motivation on this topic.

Parting Thought

Here's the thing: nobody can force you to harden yourself into a tougher, more prepared, more successful, superhuman. America has done an incredible job of cultivating a society in which we can skate along without challenging ourselves, staying in our bubbles of comfort and ease as we wander through our lives. (That is, if you can avoid or somehow recover from the unexpected calamities that inevitably arise.)

The only person who can choose to be tougher, who can choose to challenge themselves, who can choose to become superhuman, is you.

Personally, I'm subscribing to Bryan Callen's advice in Tools of Titans:
"You should try to slay dragons."
I'm choosing to be the superhuman dragon slayer, not the villager cowering in fear.

Originally Published Here