The value of doing hard things

Life is hard.

That’s the opening line, if I recall correctly*, from The Road Less Travelled. A self-help book I read more than half my lifetime ago, and about the only thing I remember about it. But I think about these three little words a lot when we are hiking over mountains in New Zealand in January, when my feet are so blistered I can barely take one step in front of the other and my son is moaning about how hard the walk is (and how much he hates it), or when I’m trying not to gag in the fly infested drop toilet at one of the huts on Stewart Island.

There is no reason for us to be hiking, or mountain climbing or abseiling into ice-crevasses (that was actually a hard no from me, but everyone else gave it a go). There is no reason for me to swallow my fear of flying objects and heights and buzz about in a helicopter, or pick our way along a narrow path than runs across the ridgeline of a mountain range, steep drops on either side, or say “okay, onwards” when faced with climbing up a rock face attached to rope (I did have an anxiety cry beforehand, just in case you start thinking of me as some sort of hero) .

We could be sitting in the Australian sunshine, drinking white wine and splashing about in the pool. Instead, we are adventuring. Doing hard things. And experiencing the deep-in-your-bones feeling of satisfaction that comes from a pleasure well earned.

I think this is part of human nature – to challenge ourselves, to push our boundaries just a little. To conquer difficulty and say I did that thing. I did it myself, and now I am less afraid because I know I can do hard things.

I’m not sure we understand this about ourselves, but it seems a truth none the less. Maybe it is something we learn with age and experience, given the opportunity. Certainly, my son doesn’t get it, at least not on the first couple of days of the first hike. Hiking is not about walking, I want to tell him as we navigate our way through the steep muddy tracks, although I refrain from lecturing as much as possible on this trip.

I hope he’ll come to realise that we hike to go places you can’t get to otherwise. To reap the benefits of being in nature, surrounded by mountains that have been around for longer than the human race, and most of life itself, and for the rewards that come at the end of the day. The feeling of arrival. The refreshing swim to wash away the dirt in a lake or waterfall, breathtakingly beautiful. The laughter that comes from a game of cards with your fellow travellers, or the conversations you have when you meet other people along the way.

And despite his moans on day one and two, by the time we arrive at the Keppler Track and have spent the day walking uphill for hours, he doesn’t shy away from doing more than the basics. He engages with the side adventures to the caves and the summit of Mount Luxmore – things he could opt out of. And at the end of it all, he shrugs and agrees he might do another hike, should we plan one.

And that’s the thing about doing hard things. It expands our capacity and our resilience. And those are lessons we need because life is hard.

Suffering is woven into the fabric of nature and life itself. It is full of disappointments and sadness, loss and grief, unexpected twists and turns. People we love die, friends we love move on, results we work our asses off to achieve don’t eventuate. Dreams can fail to materialise. Hopes can be dashed. We can be betrayed by those we trust and will certainly have to navigate the reality of our own frailty when we, or those we care about, are struck down with illness or accident or the very natural process of ageing.

All of this is stark because life is also glorious. As conscious entities with curious meaning-making minds and social bonds, we get to experience the joy of friendship and connection, and the reward of hard work paid off. We are a privileged form of life living at a time where we are lucky enough to do more than just survive. We get to experience pleasure – to indulge in the delights of art and sex and dance, and delicious food and ridiculously marvellous theatre and music which makes you cry.  

Without resilience we can too easily forget, when confronted with the harsh realities, the joys that life can also serve up. We can too easily fall into despair for too long. Get stuck in our heads, frozen by anxiety or sadness. Doing hard things reminds us that we can do hard things, and that persevering, even when we don’t want to, brings us to the rewards that life also hands out.

Of course, we don’t do hard things deliberately for the lessons they provide. It’s a side effect of something that is in itself rewarding. But it is one of the reasons to push yourself, just a little. To expand the elastic on your brave pants and say I’ll give that a go. Not only do you get to move into a bigger size of brave pants, but you also get to experience the joys of life off the beaten path, on the road less travelled.



*Actually, I checked and the opening quote is actually “Life is difficult”.

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One response to “The value of doing hard things”

  1. Wise words my friend. I completely agree with your conclusions and happily share that cycling has given me many opportunities to upsize my brave pants!


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