A Distinct Thought (and Why We Should Do Difficult Things)

Written May 25th, 2021

With third year coming to a close, I have started my first summer with out any school: no classes, no programs, no sense of structure. Naturally, this has been overwhelming, and at first I fell into the stagnant routine of self-directed research, which was more a way of putting off actual work than anything to do with research. Two weeks into it, I felt lost, waking up in the morning to do tasks that only served one purpose: taking up time. It was seeing neighbours go on long nightly strolls through my office window that it occurred to me: we need to do difficult things to feel good. What exactly is walking with the family? What does it achieve besides being something equal parts difficult and enjoyable? And why do people play sports at the beach? Why do people climb mountains, do math, or try to stay connected? In everything that is associated with feeling good, there is difficulty. It's difficult to stay in touch with friends and family, it's difficult to do well at work, it's difficult to be honest with ourselves. And some embody this into their character; they become workaholics because the obstacles they overcome in their occupation validates them, and others become socialites because they see the payoff from their efforts in staying connected. And it is not to say that the lack of difficult activity results in a loss of confidence; I know many lazy people with unreasonable confidence. But they have a common characteristic: they truly don't want to do anything. That is, they do not take on the additional responsibility, or hold that expectation of themselves. Comparatively, my most ambitious friends can be the hardest on themselves, because they have motivated goals, and if they sometimes don't stay as proactive as they think they should be in an ideal world, they beat themselves over it.

Basically, it's most important to be honest with ourselves. Because it's worse to be negligent about our goals than to have no goals. That is where we lose touch with ourselves, slipping into cognitive dissonance, losing power over our actions. In the ideal form, life is a video game that's played carefully, where we judge outcomes of actions quickly and then act on our decisions, regardless of the difficulties embedded in the action. For example, budget willing, we do not hesitate to take that trip, to move somewhere else, to pierce our ear or get a tattoo. But instead, most of us are unhappy, hoping to do things but never doing them. We need to start being honest internally, both in our actions and our thoughts, because only then can we learn what we want. By having small goals and acting on them, going through difficulties to obtain them, we can judge the outcome and become in tune with our needs and wants. If it is really the case that you don't have any goals besides making it another day, and you are happy with this on a deep level, then you either stopped reading this article a while ago, are rolling your eyes right now, or most likely will never read this in the first place.

I have started doing more difficult things. Notably, wasting less time on preparation before a project, and learning through mistakes. Procrastination has cost many hours. Instead of focusing on end goals and attacking the problem head-on, I would succumb to a deep read on every minute detail. This is most visible in my software development. There is a popular open-source library for tick aggregation available, but I chose to spend 10 or so hours writing my own aggregator. This provided no real value, other than to distract myself from active thinking. Preparation is an art. Easy to over prepare and embed too much structure into a task, but also easy to under prepare and wander aimlessly. Planning needs to inspire active action, result in opportunity for creativity, and be unique. Our idiosyncrasies are our mold. Relying excessively on external influences tilts the axis, knocks us off our trajectory, and sheds away the self-confidence that fuels distinct thought.


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