When I was in high school, I received one of my life’s most profound lessons.
I was fortunate enough to go to an elite New England boarding school with top instructors, but it did not come from any of them.
My dad was a Presbyterian minister, and I had had many lively debates with him and other theologians and philosophers, but it did not come from any of them.
My classmate, William, gave me that lesson. Bill was a perfectly normal and unremarkable high-schooler—whatever that means. He was a bit of a party animal (weren’t we all to one extent or another?) with lots of energy, a silly sense of humor, and a sarcastic wit. He was bright, but certainly was not known to his friends as a particularly serious or deep thinker.
He was not the person from whom you would expect to get a lasting life lesson.
The lesson was not intended as or delivered as deep truth. It was almost a throw-away comment in the middle of a stoned conversation about life, women, and where to get something to eat. There was no flash of lightning or sounding of trumpets, but when he said it, everything else went quiet for a moment as the words burrowed into my mind.
“Nothing difficult is ever easy.”
You are probably thinking, “That’s it? That’s your profound truth?” I don’t blame you for thinking that because, on first hearing, it does seem pretty banal, pretty inconsequential. From a logic perspective, it is called a tautology, meaning it is true by definition—of course something difficult can’t be easy. By definition, they are opposites and so this statement is obviously, but boringly, true.
Before you reject the value of this truth and move on to the next article or video or tweet, consider for a moment how often we act as if it was not true. How often do we blithely and naively act as if all of this “life stuff” is, or should be, easy?
Work, career, family—they should all be easy. Right? All I should have to do is “follow my dream” and be persistent about it for everything to work out perfectly. I’m sure the universe has a plan for me, and my destiny is greatness. All I should have to do is believe strongly enough and it will all be given to me, or so some popular self-help “gurus” would have you believe.
We think we would like it all to be easy. I mean, who needs the aggravation of all this hard stuff?
If only life just flowed smoothly by with little or no effort required on our part, then we would be happy. Right? So many people would be happy to stay in pajamas all day on the couch bingeing on Netflix or HBO or whatever. Fresh food delivered daily, perfectly behaved families that clean up after themselves and never yell at you, and money flowing in without having to work hard for it are all part of our ideal life. Right? To be able to take it easy is what we truly want. Right?
Easy is boring. Easy is mind-numbing. Easy puts us to sleep and keeps us there. A jigsaw puzzle for a three-year-old is easy, but do you feel good solving it as an adult? Easy is death without the mind and body realizing it yet.
It is the difficult things in life that give us the opportunity to grow and create meaning. It is the difficult things, and learning to surmount them, that give life its spice and help us find the joy in living.
Have you ever been fired from a job? Maybe even fired from a job you loved and thought was perfect for you but “they” decided you weren’t perfect for it? For most of us, that experience starts out as totally devastating, one of the hardest and most stressful things we ever face. Our self-image and self-worth are shattered, as we often tie our identity to the job we do. But sooner or later, we begin to realize that our life isn’t actually over. As we look for that next opportunity, which often turns out to be a much better opportunity, we discover that we are so much more than just our job.
I’ve been fired at least four times over my career as an executive, and each time it was incredibly painful. But each time it was a little bit less so. In time, sometimes after a long time, I began to realize that my value came not from my work or my title but from my heart. My real net worth had nothing to do with the size of my bank account. A difficult lesson, but one which has left me so much happier and more fulfilled in the long run. (I hope I don’t have to repeat this lesson, though.)
Have you ever lost a loved one? The death of a parent, a sibling, a friend, or God forbid a child is so much more difficult than being fired. Nothing seems safe or sure anymore when a person we love so dearly can be so easily taken away from us. Any thoughts we may have had that we were in control are proven horribly and tragically false. Death, we all learn the hard way, is inevitable for all of us, and learning to accept that is an essential but oh-so-hard life lesson. But, once learned, it can teach us to cherish each day and each person in our life, never taking them for granted.
I’ve lost both my parents and both losses left me stunned and lost. The world just seemed wrong and a bit empty. My own mortality became an obvious reality for me and, so now, each day has become precious. The difficult challenge is to live each day as fully as possible and not give in to laziness or fear. I try not to waste a single day or miss an opportunity to tell those I care about how much they mean and how special they are.
Life is hard, or at least a good life is hard. Each step forward comes at a cost, some small and some large. We can choose to pay the price to grow and develop, or we can choose the easy way out and stagnate. Relationships are hard. People, the most important part of every life, are complicated, and truly connecting with them and building a relationship is a task that takes hard work each and every day. We can choose to put in the hard work and reap the harvest of love, or we can choose to take the easy way and stay alone and lonely our whole life.
Don’t ask for or expect life to be easy. Letting go of that expectation and recognizing the reality of hard-stuff will free you and, paradoxically, make the difficulties seem less daunting. Seek out the challenges and face them head-on. Strive against seemingly impossible odds, for you are so much more powerful than you can imagine. Stretch to and beyond where you think your limits are and find your best self and your best life.
For truly, nothing difficult is ever easy.