The Difficult Effort of Effort

A bicycle riding to Midway Island

Being in the middle of doing something feels different than how you imagine it will beforehand. Accomplishing a difficult task, establishing a beneficial habit, or learning something can all feel eerily similar to failure. At least, when I'm in the middle of doing them, I often think I'm going to fail. I don't know while I'm experiencing it whether this particular instance of utter confusion or frustration will be a valuable stepping stone, a rousing success, or a burnt crater of shame. It's only afterwards that I can look back and label it.

Things are even more uncertain on a long time scale. A clear failure of the past could still be drawn on as experience towards success when or if you try again. For example, every time I tried and failed to exercise regularly, I learned something about how to exercise, physiology, and my own psychology. Even if it was just another example of stuff that didn't fully work. I made a little bit of progress each of those times too, which altogether add up to more progress than if I hadn't tried at all. Have I really failed if I keep trying? The jury is still out.

Whether it's physical fitness, learning a new language, or solving your regular problems: throw yourself into trying with sincerity. The key is tenacity. To try with effort in the face of despair, confusion, and slow progress. To keep going when you're in the thick of it instead of giving up.

This aspect of experience is surprisingly challenging to explain to others. It comes across as motivational feel good goop or scare tactics. People routinely, predictably underestimate how many mistakes they'll make and how stupid they'll feel at first. Learning can often feel like the mental equivalent of trying to swim through glue. If you don't give up at the earliest signs of frustration, you'll often find you're much more capable than you thought.

Recently I participated in a collaborative working meeting. When the meeting began, I was so lost. I felt hopelessly that there was nothing I could contribute that would be meaningful. I felt too stupid to be in the room because people were talking faster than I could process and using jargon I hadn't absorbed. But I'm aware of how not giving up has served me well in the past and how learning often feels like beating your head against walls. Instead of tuning out, I just kept paying attention. I occasionally asked questions that I was scared sounded dumb. Sometimes I said the things that seemed obvious to me but no one else was saying.

I saw certain confusing things repeated enough that they started to sink in. In the end, I ended up partially driving the course of the meeting. I was the one suggesting concrete next actions. If I was someone else, I might have dealt with the feelings of difficulty and inferiority by staying quiet.

Even if you're insecure about your abilities, what good is not even trying?

Try things. Try a lot. Attack from new angles. Keep trying. Try again after you fail. And after you fail AGAIN. There's usable material in the rubble you leave behind you EVEN IF you NEVER succeed.

There's a story I ran into over on Jeff Atwood's Coding Horror blog about how quantity always trumps quality:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A".

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

I'm not saying you will fail. I'm not saying you will succeed. I'm saying trying is what's valuable. Doing the work over and over and over even though it's hard is the only controllable way you can move closer to payoff.

Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

When you set out for Ithaca,
pray that your journey is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- don't fear them:
You will never find these on your way,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
you will never encounter the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclops, the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with pleasure and joy,
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you will have become, with so much experience,
by then you will understand what an Ithaca means.

Photo credit: Journey to Midway Island by kris krüg