Doing Things the Hard Way

I like doing things the hard way.

I take the stairs, I do basic math in my head, I cook and bake from scratch, I drive manual transmission cars, I do not use a cell phone, and I write long letters by hand, all while working daily at a taxing job I no longer need financially. 

I do not do these things just to amuse family and friends, gratifying as that may be. I do them for the same reason President Kennedy said we should go to the moon: Not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. I do them because challenging ourselves and overcoming obstacles, large or small, physical or mental, is deeply satisfying. And I do them because, even more intriguingly, examples abound that doing things the hard way pays unexpected dividends.


Take physical exercise, a model of doing things the hard way

It takes hard work to get much benefit from physical exercise, and its prolonged absence, unlike a lack of food or water, does not exact an immediate price, lessening any sense of urgency.

Most of us exercise to lose weight and get into better physical condition, but the knock-on effects can be a pleasant surprise. Since starting years ago with an every other day routine of calisthenics, light weight training, and a half hour of brisk pedaling on a recumbent exercise bike, I have noted fewer aches and pains in my joints, improved cholesterol blood test results, more alertness during the day, and more restful sleep at night. None of these fortuitous results were reasons I started exercising, but they are all the more welcome for that.

Peter Sagal, host of National Public Radio’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! quiz show, started running at age 40. He ran his first marathon in Chicago in 2005, fully expecting it to be his last, just another checkoff on a bucket list. Instead he kept going and in October of 2013 completed the Twin Cities Marathon, his 11th marathon overall.

 “I think that it’s really important for us to do something with our bodies,” Sagal told Minnesota Public Radio. “I really do. I think you need to be physically active, not just for your health, which is important, but for your mind. I think we all need to get the heck out and move.”


Creativity may be fostered by doing things the hard way

Two successful musicians who otherwise have little in common, Jack White of the White Stripes and Glen Hansard of the Frames, the Swell Season, and the Oscar-winning and utterly charming 2007 Irish independent film Once, both use cheap guitars that won’t stay in shape or in tune. The bimonthly Intelligent Life reports that, odd as it sounds, musicians like White and Hansard deliberately make things difficult for themselves. When making music gets too easy, says White, it becomes harder to make it sing.

Ernest Hemingway’s first serious writing was shaped by the need to be economical with the cables he sent from Paris as a foreign correspondent for The Toronto Star. Cables were expensive so Hemingway quickly learned to shed unnecessary words. The result was short sentences with forceful impact. Cablese, as Hemingway called it, made things creatively difficult but Hemingway used that to his advantage as a writer, and ours as readers.

Now we see Twitter enjoying great success imposing a 140 character limit on messages. A limit on characters in a medium with unlimited capacity? Perhaps Twitter’s founders knew about Hemingway and cablese. Certainly, they appreciate how useful the right obstacle can be.


Even extraordinary ability does not exempt us from hard work

As a law student in the 1970s, I watched in wonder as another student, gifted with a prodigious memory, did little more than read the assigned cases once and listen intently in class. I never saw him take notes and only rarely heard him speak in a classroom, yet he stayed on track, passing all his courses while enjoying an active social life.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell tells the story of Lewis Turman, an early researcher into the nature of intelligence, encountering a similarly gifted young man who was expelled from law school because his professors did not believe it possible to precisely reproduce long passages of legal opinions from memory.

A more pedestrian fate awaited my fellow law student. He failed the bar examination. Twice. For some reason what had worked in law school did not work with the bar examination. With a three strikes rule in place, passing on the third sitting was imperative. Out of sheer desperation, he resorted to studying like the rest of us, going over and over material as though he did not have it down cold after one reading. It worked, and he passed on his third try.

Shortcuts tempt us now more than ever. With smart phones and GPS, just how important is it to remember phone numbers, addresses, and directions? Another obstacle overcome, perhaps, but do we lose something in the bargain?

Life today requires far less physical activity than in the past, yet we know that a sedentary lifestyle, although available to many of us, is an unwise choice likely to be regretted later. Will we one day similarly regret delegating to technology so much of what we had to learn and remember in the past? Larger still, what is this impulse we have to avoid hard work and take the easy way out? And will it ever be rivaled by consciously choosing to do things the hard way, as Jack White and Glen Hansard do?

These questions will be answered in good time. As for me, my views were shaped by a nearby and nearly matchless example of hard work overcoming obstacles. My mother, widowed at 51, raised seven children by harnessing the skills she had—working in food service at a junior high school, cutting hair in the kitchen at home, and taking in sewing from all over the city. The hour of television she allowed herself in the evening was an hour mostly spent mending shirts and cuffing pants. Later in life she gave up television entirely and began reading novels and solving word puzzles. She enjoyed these more, and besides, she told us, books and word puzzles taught her things she did not know, and she liked learning new things.

Amen to that, Mom. Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War has been on my reading list for years. I think I’ll tackle it soon.

In Latin.


Mark Bergen is a lawyer and editor in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His short fiction has appeared in The Lake Street Review and Dogwood Tales Magazine.