Do Difficult Things that Force Engagement

By Steve Magness from

I remember the comment clearly. I was lying on the ground, drained of all energy, exhausted, unable to get up. My legs were a mixture of on fire and full of lead. I wanted to puke.

“Your parents haven’t felt what you are feeling for 30+ years, if ever.”

It was an odd comment. We were at the track, absolutely spent after a session of 400m repeats, and my coach at the time, Jon Warren, made the comment to fill the space as he awaited the handful of us who were there regaining consciousness so that we could first stand up, then cool down to finish our workout. As my brain regained oxygen, Warren’s comment sunk in; it’s one that has stuck with me for years, because it was true then, and had greater implications now.

“When you’re done with competing and just enjoying running, don’t stop doing hard workouts.” This piece of advice came years later from a good friend and author David Epstein. I believe his point was this: as something moves from a pursuit where we are trying to get better to something we do just for health and fun, we often neglect the really difficult parts. We go jogging every day. We forget the gut-busting interval sessions. We default to the pleasant and easy.

This isn’t an article about remembering to do intervals, it’s about the value of doing something hard.

Hard things bring a flood of experiences. The feeling you get provides intensity, depth, and nuance. You feel the difference between local pain in your quads—be it burning or numbness—the queasiness of your stomach, and the effect a CO2 overload has on your priorly clear mind. You get a rush of hormones, from those that lift you up to those which contribute to anxiety to those that make you motivated, numb the pain, and feel euphoric. You feel what it’s like to be locked-in, in the zone, or on the flip side how to navigate distraction and discomfort.

It doesn’t have to be running until exhaustion. We get a similar rush of various experiences when we give our full effort and attention to sculpting, writing, mastering an instrument, or taking on much better opponents in the latest video game that we’ve fallen for. Each experience brings its own unique cascade of feelings, emotions, and hormones, but the experience of doing something challenging, something that pushes our limits, is immense.

We are forced to deeply experience what it means to be engaged in the moment. Doing difficult things brings value. Especially in a distracted world.

Perhaps the world’s most notable expert on myth and ancient mystical traditions, Jospeh Campbell, was once asked by PBS’s Bill Moyers if he’s ever had a mystical peak experience. His response was that he had been privileged to have a few. They all occurred while running all-out repeats on the track. 

This is pure conjecture, but I often wonder if when we don’t take David Epstein’s advice to keep on doing interval workouts, or we fall for coach Warren’s prediction, that we end up searching for something that comes with that flood of feelings, hormones, and engagement. We yell and troll people on facebook and Twitter to feel something (anger with a hit of adrenaline). Or we fall into a bit more productive habit of adopting the latest fad of plunging into ice water every morning. We feel invigorated. Well, it’s something hard, that causes a stress response and forces engagement. Are there health benefits beyond that? Maybe, but doubtful.
I think it’s part of our nature, the need to feel that flood of hormones, sensations, and feelings. And I think it’s important that it comes in something we choose to do, that we have control over. After all, we’ve got enough difficult things in our life (work, COVID, etc.), but most of that we have no control over. That doesn’t give us the same effect of hard intervals or even plunging into freezing water.

I prefer hard things that come with tangible benefits besides just being hard, and ones that I enjoy, even if only in a “type-2” fun kind of way: running a weekly hard workout, trying to wrestle with difficult topics and turn them into books, deep conversations on tricky topics with friends, and so forth.

The point is this: whatever your thing is, I think it’s important to be intentional about having something that is difficult in your life and that you have control over.

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