Why going uphill takes you further: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
The aim in taking on a challenge is not just to surmount it, but to learn what one is capable of. Doing this in youth lets one acquire skills that can be vital.
“Choose what is harder. Youth is a time to prove you have it in you.” The advice was offered by a lecturer at a Chennai-based college to my older teen, after we arrived at a stalemate on what course she ought to pursue in college.
She is enamoured by an option that I think isn’t worth investing three years of one’s life in. I have suggested that it could serve as a side hustle, or an elective.
That is how we ended up on a conference call with a professional teacher. After he had made his stance clear, he went on to explain it. The pursuit of the easy, when one is young, keeps one from exploring and understanding one’s boundaries, he said.
I agree. This is precisely why the joke about calculus has never made sense to me. Of course one doesn’t use it “when adding things up at the grocery store”; that was never its purpose. One uses it as a component of various other fields (engineering, chemistry, biochemistry). One studies it to explore a frontier of human knowledge; and explore the extents of what one’s own mind can grasp. One does this to build a culture of effort, and to set a high bar at which one might later aim.
This holds true for in-depth study across disciplines, whether they are the pure sciences or literature, history or dance.
A few hours after the call, the young one threw me an interesting question: Does it still make sense to choose what is hard over an easier option, in a time when the world is geared towards making life easier? We work hard today so tomorrow can be better, she pointed out. Why not simply take an easy route to that destination, if one is available?
This is a theme I’ve exchanged notes on with Krishna Jha, a Bengaluru-based venture capital and equity investor. He has a deep interest in biology and philosophy. A while ago, Jha suggested I look up the Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s most recent book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life (2021).
One of the most interesting rules he has to offer is to imagine the best you could be, and then aim single-mindedly for that. Peterson admits that this isn’t easy, for various reasons. Most people are not motivated to do anything of consequence. In order to feel motivated, one must be driven by passion, and this is a rare resource.
Assuming that the individual wishes to live a life of consequence, is there a way to unearth or generate passion? The answer, Peterson suggests, is to step outside oneself. This is how love operates, whether for a person, a sports team, a scientific question to be resolved, or an economic or sociological problem that faces society.
Step outside the self, and identify a larger cause.
In an age of relative self-centeredness, I feel compelled to add an additional motive. Step outside the self and make the effort; see what you can do on the hard road; because no life is uninterruptedly easy.
Every good story has a start that isn’t good enough, and ends at a point that is better than that start. That journey is what makes the story worth telling. “Without it, everything sinks into meaninglessness and boredom or degenerates and spirals into terror, anxiety and pain,” Peterson writes.
Along the way, it is possible that the story as it was originally imagined may have to be destroyed and entirely rewritten. The hero may have to reimagine themselves altogether, in an altogether different narrative. How are they to do that, without a varied set of tools?
And so, in youth, choose what is hard, because that is pragmatic. As arguments go, this fits in with a personal belief as well: you become what you focus on.
Whether the kid will buy these arguments is a decision she must take. I hope she gets to play a hero, rather than a bystander, in the story of life.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)