“Two more posts and we’ll rest.” My wife and I had been hiking for seven and a half hours. Our legs ached, our feet were sore. The wind burned our eyes. We couldn’t walk more than fifty feet at a time without catching our breath. We had already climbed 4,000 feet in elevation and were now 13,500 feet above sea level. We were on the final stretch to (near!) the summit of Mauna Kea. We were on vacation.
And not just on any vacation - it was on our honeymoon (her idea - but I loved it).
When we reached the top, we recognized the cars that had passed us earlier on the trek up. Yes, we spent eight hours on foot to get to where a car could’ve taken us in thirty minutes. And after...we turned around and hiked for another four hours back to the bottom.
Why did we spend a whole day and a ton of effort to see a view that’s easily accessible by car in only half an hour? I’ve noticed this pattern in me. I’ve fixed the plumbing in my apartment a few times, disassembling and reassembling the intertwined mass of pipes. I’ll build spreadsheets from scratch. I’ll bike or walk instead of taking cabs. I don’t intentionally go around looking for the hard way, but I gravitate towards it.
I actually enjoy it.
Using a plumber, pre-made spreadsheets, or cabbing would save a lot of time and have a higher degree of professionalism. Why would I go for lower quality and more work? Am I a masochist? Did I join the cult of David Goggins, a man whose motto is “Stay Hard”?
There are definitely some ego-driven aspects of proving my abilities, conquering fears, and having more control. But there’s more. When I get my hands dirty, I see the logic and concreteness that always underlies the physical world. In order for something to exist, it must make sense at some level. When you experience it, you no longer have to assume.
I learned that pipes have to flow downhill. I learned sometimes you don’t know what’s wrong and you gotta take it all apart and put it back together and hope it works. I now know that even professional plumbers sometimes jury-rig solutions and leave a mess if there’s another problem. By doing the plumbing myself, I can trace each drop of water as it enters my apartment through the supply line, flows through the faucet, pools in the sink, empties down the drain, and exits into the outlet pipe.
When I do something, I see the edge cases and I can explore deeper. It’s like that moment in The Matrix when Neo sees the fluorescent green letters transform into reality.
Trial and error is the best (and possibly only?) way to learn.
Doing things the hard way also leads to introspection.
“I don't like work--no man does--but I like what is in the work--the chance to find yourself. Your own reality--for yourself not for others--what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.” ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Only by pushing myself can I find and break through my limits. It’s the only way to find out how I will react when the going gets tough. A steep twelve-hour hike at altitude has a way of producing questions like “what am I doing here?” and “what am I getting out of this”? I’m forced to reflect on my perspective when I’m doing hard things.
Do I do everything the hard way? No. Some people wouldn’t even consider what I do hard. What I do in a week may be someone else’s Sunday stroll.
The lessons I’ve learned by challenging myself have been worth it for me. I’ve picked up skills and learned my deepest motivations, what really makes me tick. I see details that I can only appreciate by being in the moment. Just from the hike, I saw how the plants changed as we ascended. I fought the fear when I saw fellow hikers turn and retreat, miles before the summit. Most importantly, my wife and I learned about our capabilities and teamwork as we went through the challenge together. I’ve never regretted challenging myself, it’s always been more enjoyable, satisfying, and easier than I expected in hindsight.
Consider challenging yourself in areas that you’re interested in, you can develop those skills better and learn deeper in those areas. Don’t always look for the hard way, but embrace it when it comes.
I learned at least one important thing at the time. Until then, in my literary, philosophical, or theological essays, I had fit together not metal but ideas. In this case, one can always get away with it, in one way or another, for concepts are easily malleable. With matter, however, things became more serious. No more give, no more approximating, no more or less artificial arrangements. This does not mean that no rigor is possible in the works of the mind, but it is very rare, and it is very easy to delude both oneself and others. - Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone is Our Happiness ↩︎