Fear is the biggest obstacle we all deal with. The nature of fear is to get in the way. When we want to do something, or we want to learn how to do something, but we hold back because it seems like the thing we want to do will be too hard -- that’s fear.
I would like to suggest a way of looking at hard things that may be new to you. There are no hard things. There is only new things. When you are facing a daunting task, it’s not that this thing is really hard to do, it’s just that you don’t know how to do it yet and you’re afraid to give yourself over to the possibility of failure.
Something that is hard is a challenge. It’s a challenge to yourself -- are you going to grow or are you going to stay the same?
Human beings sent other human beings to the moon. You are reading this on a device that translates ones and zeros into something you can read, and it was made by people. Thousands of airplanes fly safely across the world every day. Submarines are currently circling the depths of the oceans. Somewhere out there, right now, a person is learning to speak their fifteenth language. People everywhere are solving problems and discovering new ones.
At this very moment, future Olympians are beginning their training. They’re kids. And at this juncture, they are terrible at their sport. I’m not being a jerk. They’re lousy. Their performance is indistinguishable from all of the other kids who will not go on to the Olympics. Also happening right now, at this very second, a young woman is writing a short story. Some day she will go on to write a celebrated novel. It will be marketed with quotes from the New York Times that praise its dazzling prose… but this short story she’s working on right now? It is laughably bad. If you read it, you might charitably encourage her to consider another line of work.
When we see high performers, it is tempting to ascribe their success to natural gifts. And to be sure, aptitude plays a role. But the far bigger component of their success is that they are unafraid to do bad work. Doing poorly does not discourage their persistence. The willingness to endure repeated failures in order to improve is the defining characteristic of every success story.
You can plot the progress of any achievement by the number of failed attempts as a ratio to the number of successful attempts. Starting out, you might have 100 failures for every small victory. Soon, you’re successful 1 out of every 50 attempts. If that sounds discouraging to you, you’re not doing the math right. That is twice as good as when you started out. Over time, the rate of failure decreases, and the rate of success increases. What once seemed hard is now just something that you do the right way most of the time.
This is true of every single thing you may wish to do, but presently believe that you cannot do. It does not only apply to big newsworthy achievements. It applies just as well to everything in our lives. We learn. Human beings were designed to improve.
Exercise, weight loss, making friends, learning job skills, cooking, playing the piano, kayaking, having intimate conversations, telling the people in your life that you love them, respecting yourself… Becoming excellent at every single one of these things is down to persistence.
So if all it takes is persistence to accomplish virtually anything, why are there so many people who are inept at what they want to be doing? The catch is that time and energy are finite resources.
There is an opportunity cost to every choice that you make. People become Olympians by prioritizing their training over everything else in their lives. Learning to write code involves spending months alone in a room staring at a computer screen, being confused and writing a lot of lousy code. Becoming a pilot involves thousands of hours of training, and many more hours of comparatively low paying work before you are experienced enough to land a better job. That might mean delaying family planning, or going without a lot of the niceties in life.
The good news is that the stakes are not always so high when it comes to doing most things. You don’t have to forgo everything in your life in order to learn how to do anything new. But you do have to make choices. When you set out to improve in some area, the only way that you will succeed is by committing to becoming a changed person at the end of the process.
The person you are today thinks that this new thing is hard to do. The person you must become in order to do that thing does not think it is hard to do. It is just something they know how to do. The person you are today might spend a lot of time watching TV, having a really active social life, going to the movies, eating out at nice restaurants. The person you must become may not have enough time or energy to do those things.
That is the choice you are making when you decide whether you want to grow or stay the same.