Hard

February 7, 2021 ☞ Word of the day

As a kid, I was fascinated by Moh’s scale for mineral hardness. It never felt all that scientific. Grab a rock, see whether it leaves a scratch on another one, and then rank them accordingly. It’s a boulder royale where quartz beats feldspar and topaz beats quartz. Topping the charts is the diamond, the scratchiest gem of ’em all. If this prison-style battle of mineral dominance seems harsh, don’t forget: we’re measuring hardness here.

Then there’s the other kind of hardness, also known as “difficulty.” Here are a few common sense proxies for how hard a task is:

Considered properly, the first item, novelty, can supersede the rest. What makes it challenging is its many unknowns. Few are willing to work in the dark. Fewer still want to discover how they underestimated the time, effort, and expertise required to succeed. The shift from rather to unexpectedly quite on the hardness scale is demoralizing.

But novelty is erased with exposure. Every attempt reveals pitfalls to avoid and shortcuts for next time. Opportunities for failure are either avoided or realized, but failure is requisite for all endeavors, hard or not. Expertise is gained one notch at a time. Each trial, it is hoped, bolsters one’s willingness to try, try again.

The bad news of hardness is that it’s universally relative. Some tasks are always hard for all people, even those who have an IQ of 160, have a shipping container full of money, and can plank for 90 minutes straight. Mastering a rubik’s cube takes homework, I don’t care who you are. Every gold medallist figure-skater scotched their first salchows, even the Russians. And only a complete psychopath can say “toy boat” 10 times fast without a lick of practice.

But this is also good news. Universally hard means universally achievable. There is no VIP entrance or backstage pass to life’s most challenging endeavors. Folks who seem to breeze through life (or who act like they do), are subject to the same hardness scale. As the adage goes: a tungsten carbide blade thinks it’s pretty hot shit until it meets one made of titanium diboride.

To climb the scale of hardness, to “harden oneself” (so to speak), and do hard things. And there is no shortage of hard homework to test your faculties. In The Flinch, Julian Smith offers this “real, visceral” at-home assignment:

When you’re at home and have five minutes, go to your bathroom, walk up to your shower, and turn on the cold water. Wait a second; then test it to make sure it’s as cold as possible.

Do you see what’s coming?

When I first read this 8 years ago, I dismissed this as a stupid and pointless exercise, until I got to this:

This exercise has no consequences, physical or social. If you refuse to do it, ask yourself why.

Because the exercise is stupid, or pointless? How will you know unless you’ve tried?

Just about every morning, after a routine of stretching but before my morning coffee, I crank the shower and immediately hop into an ice cold stream. When the water hits, my heart starts pounding. I sometimes curse but occasionally burst into song. It’s always unexpected and I’m genuinely surprised that after all these years, you never really “get used to it.” A cold-water blast at 7am is reliably tough.

And if I’m lucky, it’s the hardest thing I do all day.

So how do you tackle the hard thing in front of you right now? Address the factors in this order:

Nothing is hard in a vacuum (except an astronaut on Viagra); you must continously calibrate your personal scale of mineral hardness.

When you do hard things every day, you accomplish two things. First, you will grow accustomed to the feeling of hard. You learn to feel it without fleeing it. It’s a coarse and sandy feeling called grit.

And second, when you do hard things it unfailingly demonstrates to others what’s possible. It is a gift to every hesitating soul with an attached card that reads, “You will survive.”