Monday, November 22, 2010

The Virtue of Doing Hard Things

One of Coach Billy Watson’s favorite phrases of late is “It’s a virtue to do hard things.”  Two years ago, I read an excellent book by that same title by twin brothers Alex & Brett Harris, and the principle shared by both the adage and the book is that some things, though uncomfortable, are worth pursuing; and some comforts are worth giving up.  For instance, it’s not easy to run a marathon, but tens of thousands do so every year for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is conquering an objective challenge and achieving a higher level of personal fitness along the way.  By the same virtue, it’s not easy to master (or even begin learning) a new language, leadership skills, a musical instrument, or even juggling, but the learning process itself has its own reward.  Brain fitness, a deep sense of accomplishment for even small steps of improvement, and a broader range of physical and social skills all accompany the effort to do such hard things. 

My brother, Jim, learned two new languages at age 29 in order to work for seven years in extreme rural (and extremely poor) East Africa; he began working on Mandarin Chinese at age 44 for two more years’ work overseas. My nephew, Ben, is in his third year as as a cadet in the U.S. Air Force Academy, and despite his Eagle Scout and valedictorian feats in high school, he attests that getting through his “doolie” (freshman) year was the hardest thing he’s ever done (so far).  He’s training to be an Officer, and they teach that the best way to learn to lead is to learn to follow.  Since late summer, I’ve committed to daily efforts at beginning banjo playing, dedicating a portion of my time, money and patience to do this “hard thing” (however frivolous it may seem for a 40-something Northerner). Physical, mental, and artistic benefits are a lifelong motivation, but this skill will certainly go further than getting into yet another TV show, video game, or tech fad. 

So, when I encourage the Jugheads to stick with juggling—even for just one year—it’s not for enrollment quotas or surface promises. It’s for their overall development.  Humans are designed to be constantly challenged (consider our muscular, skeletal and immune systems), and in areas such as language, leadership, music, or juggling, it indeed is virtuous to choose the narrow, hard path for the promise of long-term reward.

The Big Picture: Prioritizing Goals

Distance running has represented a significant portion of my daily life and well-being since 2007 (and on-and-off since ‘85), and few athletic endeavors better epitomize goal-setting than the marathon.  I’ve run five marathons in the past two years.  For the middle three races, I tried my utmost to break 3:21 and achieve a Boston Qualifer (BQ).  During each of those attempts, I not only fell short, I fell WAY short: by 37, 57, and 78 minutes, to be exact.  By contrast, my goal for Twin Cities ‘10 was to simply beat 3:45.  My resulting 3:42 on Oct. 3 was strong and consistent, and proved a better experience.  Having failed multiple times and then finally adjusted my goal for a BQ, the blessing is that I’m reminded about true goal of my running: character over qualifying.

During and after my first serious BQ attempts in ‘96 (3:23) and ‘04 (3:34), I over-trained, got injured, quit running, and gained 40 pounds—twice.  Sure, I gave it my all, but I gave it too much, winding up losing more than I had gained through the actual accomplishment. Now that I’m not as young and not as unwise, my race-day results are not as lofty, but my major goals are intact.  I like to keep lists, and I have a Top Five List of why I prioritize fitness.  I steward my body for my: 1) God; 2) marriage; 3) career; 4) quality of life (daily function); and 5) quantity of life (longetivity).  If I didn’t have this list and the guidance of these primary goals, I’d be tempted to give up after every disappointment involving an unmet secondary goal (i.e., the ego rush of a fast(er) time to impress people).  This list also kept me balanced through my more recent failed BQ attempts.

I’m both a romantic and a realist.  On the one hand, movies like Rudy inspire me, seeing a man daring to dream beyond logic and counsel.  On the other hand, sometimes the most inspirational stories involve lives whose consistent faithfulness and perseverance overcome less dramactic but more effective goals in the long run (no pun intended).  I’ll continue running, but it’ll be my Top 5 List, not a BQ, that will drive me across the finish line every day.  That’s precisely why character development at JUGHEADS always trumps medals, awards, and other temporal forms of prestige.