Growing up, one of my favorite stories was, The Little Engine that Could.
If you don’t know the story, a little steam engine, slowly makes it up and over a steep hill, with its train of cars, while saying to itself:
“I-think-I-can! … I-think-I-can! … I-think-I-can!"
It was a struggle, but that Little Engine made it over the mountain, and it taught me the power of persistence. It also taught me to believe in yourself, especially when you’re up against tough challenges.
What it did not teach me is three key things about struggles:
- Is it worth it?
- Effort is how we expand what we’re capable of.
- Embrace the effort.
Is it Worth It
It might not be easy, but it’s often worth it. The "Is it worth it?" question is an important one. Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins, and others ask us to check if our ladder is up against the right wall. Seth Godin reminds us that sometimes The Dip is worth it, but we should check before we lean in.
Many efforts are worth it. Zig Ziglar reminds us that:
“People do not wander around and then find themselves at the top of Mount Everest.”
My cousin is a doctor. Schooling was a long and winding road. Growing her practice was tough. She loves it, and she loved her journey … effort and all.
Throughout my life, my personal efforts have paid off. In my studies, working out, my athletic pursuits, and on the job. What’s effortless for me now, was a great deal of effort at some point.
They sure make the impossible look easy, but just ask an Olympic athlete what sort of effort they put in behind the scenes.
So many times what happens behind the curtain, is a reminder that sacrifice is the price of success. Extreme effort often comes with the territory.
And just how much effort does it take to become an expert? Malcolm Gladwell helps answer that with his stories and examples of deliberate practice.
When it is not worth it? When you are chasing what other people want for you, versus what you want for you. It’s not worth it, when you forget to enjoy the journey along the way. It’s not worth it, when you are going against your grain vs. "building new muscle." It’s not worth it, when you aren’t living your values, or on your personal path. It’s not worth it, when it’s not your passion.
Your vision and your values are your North Star, and your passion helps you over the humps.
Resistance Makes Us Stronger
Resistance tests us. Effort expands what we’re capable of.
For the longest time, I wished my problems away. I worked through them, and I rose to any challenge, but I wanted the flow of perpetual problems to stop. A mentor at work, shed some light: "When you get to the top of the mountain, guess what? … There’s another mountain." Well put. It was one of those "ah-ha" moments.
It was yet another reminder of how "if-then" thinking doesn’t work: "If I get to the top of the mountain, I’ll be set for life."
One of my most insightful mentors gave me a great way to think about resistance, effort, and growth. He said, "It’s awkward. That’s what growth feels like." To this day, when I feel awkward while trying something new, I remember that it’s part of the growth process.
Tony Robbins also shares a great mental model for challenges and effort. He says resistance makes us stronger. He says a friend taught him to think about it like pushing up against a bubble. The more we push against the bubble, the more the bubble expands, and the more we expand ourselves. We become something more in the process, and we prepare ourselves to take on bigger challenges.
Seth Godin teaches us to lean into our challenges that are worth it. Steven Pressfield teaches us to do the work, and that resistance is what holds back our inner artist, and what we are capable of. Who wants to be a "has-been" who never was, because we gave up too early, or never tried.
Effort can be our greatest friend, when it comes to unleashing our greatest self.
Embracing the Effort Changes Everything
They say that knowing is half the battle. Actually, knowing what to expect is often more than half the battle. How many times do we step into a challenge, not knowing what are getting ourselves into? When we know what to expect, we can deal with the setbacks, and we can deal with the timeframes, and we can set our own expectations to work with us, not against us.
Viktor Frankl taught us that it’s the worthwhile goals, that make life worthwhile:
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him."
I finally know what it means to strive without struggling, and whenever I need a reminder of the power of effort, I reread The Man in the Arena.
A surprising thing happens when you embrace effort. You don’t see problems. You see challenges. In fact, you seek out new challenges to grow and expand what you’re capable of.
When you exercise, you don’t feel the pain. Instead, you feel the growth. When you practice your craft, the smallest move becomes your work of art. When you buckle down to study, you don’t just go through the motions. No, you smile inside knowing you are putting in the effort.
Embrace where you are.
Embrace the effort, too.