How to Do Hard Things

Sometimes almost impossible is just the right amount of difficulty

Most people go through life without doing anything really hard.

Sometimes the low-hanging fruit is the only fruit that we end up picking.

But what about the hard things — the things that seem almost impossible? Should we try to do them? And if we try, will we be able to actually do them?

Should we be afraid of something just because it is hard? Not at all.

Should we attempt to do the near-impossible? Yes.

A world that only solves easy problems would eventually be very difficult to live in. Eventually, we need to confront the problems that seem impossible.

And most people never even consider that the hard things could be the most valuable — or even satisfying. Difficulty can be inherently valuable, if you know how to do difficult things.

Want to Improve? Make It Harder

Most of us don’t like tests that are hard. But what if harder tests actually made us better?

In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell describes a test developed by professor Shane Frederick. The Cognitive Reflection Test, or CRT, measures the ability to understand when a question is more complex than it appears. Here is a sample question:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Many people have a quick, instinctive response — the ball costs 10 cents. But that is not correct, since the bat costs $1 more than the ball and a 10 cent ball would exceed the stated $1.10 total. The correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents.

Frederick gave the test to students at top colleges around the United States. Even students from elite schools had low scores. The test is short and consists of just three questions. The highest average was around 2.18, while the lowest average was well before 1.

The CRT is a hard test. That is undeniable. But two psychologists discovered an easy way to increase scores: make the test harder.

Gladwell described a study in which one group of students were given the CRT the normal way. The students averaged 1.9 correct answers out of three. Then, a second group of students were given the same test questions, but in a different, smaller font that was very hard to read. The average for the second group was much higher: 2.45.

The increased difficulty in reading the questions forced the students to read more carefully and consider the questions in more depth. Students could not skim over a question that seemed easy but in fact required deeper consideration. The increased difficulty actually improved test scores.

Harder questions led to better results.

Sometimes, we don’t need easier problems. Hard problems elevate our capabilities. They force us to dig deeper and focus more. They make us better.

The Power of Unsolvable Problems

“The most valuable problems may be the unsolvable ones.”

— Sue Shellenbarger, from her article in the Wall Street Journal

Unsolvable problems might provide even more value than we might initially believe. A 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal profiled how Northwestern University uses problems without clear solutions to prepare freshman engineering students. The designers of the university program believe that solving near-impossible problems is an essential life and career skill. Often, students arrive on campus without having actually failed at anything.

For example, imagine attempting to solve these challenges:

  • Equip a stroke survivor to crochet with one hand.
  • Equip a partially paralyzed shooting victim to put on tight support stockings
  • Make workout gear for someone with only one arm.
  • Make a bottle opener for someone with only one arm.

And now imagine this constraint: you only have $100 to spend.

What did the students learn?

The university believes that learning to confront difficult problems teaches resilience, humility, and creativity. Students have to learn how to fail and how to handle the various emotions associated with failure, like anxiety and even depression in some cases.

Students previously faced challenges with clearly defined processes. These new challenges were open ended, with no clear path to success. The students learned to accept failure and to learn from it.

There is a certain power in confronting a problem without a clear solution. Facing the near-impossible task forces us to change in ways that we would never otherwise consider.

But most of us need a little prompting to face the impossible. Most people do not just look for hard tasks and then try to do them.

We need someone to push us to attempt the impossible.

Change the Question, from Why to How?

Watching a movie is easy. You just sit in front of a screen and pay attention.

But making a movie is hard. Very hard. Infinitely harder than watching one.

In the late 1970s, established German film director Werner Herzog wanted to encourage a young filmmaker to finish his film. The young filmmaker’s name was Errol Morris.

Herzog told Morris that if Morris finished his film, then he would eat his own shoe — the entire thing.

Why would Herzog eat his own shoe?

Herzog was already well-established as a filmmaker. Morris was not. Herzog promised that if Morris did something hard, then Herzog would do something similarly as hard.

If Morris had the guts to make his film, then Herzog would have the guts to do the near-impossible: to eat an entire shoe.

Morris finished the film. And Herzog had to eat his own shoe.

Eating an entire shoe seems difficult, near-impossible, right? But now Herzog had to confront a different question — not why, but how.

Herzog wanted to encourage others to do hard things, so he decided to do something hard to show that it could be done. He decided to eat an entire shoe.

So Herzog then had to ask himself this question:

How do you eat a shoe?

After someone determines to do something hard, the next step is to shift the question from why to how.

How to Solve Big Problems with Creativity

One of the most fascinating times in the history of applied technology is the development of computer graphics for visual effects in films.

And one company has stood at the forefront of the movement: Industrial Light and Magic, or ILM.

In the mid-1970s, George Lucas just finished making American Graffiti and was planning his next project. The project was going to be a “space opera” but one problem stood out above the rest: how to create the visual effects. George needed cutting edge effects — the scale of which had never been put on film before. So George Lucas created ILM to help put the Star Wars universe on film.

Over time, ILM not only created the visual effects for the Star Wars films, but pioneered how movies used digital effects. The work of ILM in the field of visual effects is barely short of magical. You’ve probably seen thousands of ILM effects without even knowing it.

Dennis Muren, one of the visual effects masters at ILM, once described how ILM creates such incredible and near-impossible effects.

The process often started with George Lucas describing a shot that he wanted to put into a movie.

Then, Dennis Muren and the others at ILM would say: “this is impossible — no one has ever done this before.”

Famously, and often, George Lucas would say: “I understand this is impossible. But if it were possible, how would you do it?”

Being asked that single question repeatedly created a process that Dennis Muren and the rest of the professionals at ILM has used over and over to solve hard problems.

Dennis explained the process that ILM uses as follows.

How to solve big problems that need creativity

  1. Start with a big problem.
  2. Break down the big problem into smaller problems.
  3. Keep breaking down the problems until you reach the point where the problem is small enough so that it can be solved by a single person.
  4. If one person can’t solve the single-person problem, then give the problem to someone else.
  5. Continue until solved.

Dennis Muren even elaborated on the final piece of the process. What do you do if you’re stuck?

In an interview, Dennis said that he often thought about how to solve problems that seemed impossible. When this occurred, he made a commitment to think for a few more minutes. He committed to never be “stuck.” He just committed to think about the problem for a few more moments. In most cases, he discovered a solution in 15 minutes.

His favorite moments were when he would return to George Lucas with an idea. And often, the ideas worked. ILM could achieve what seemed impossible.

And when the answer did not come quickly enough, ILM was not afraid to innovate. Dennis Muren stated that ILM has survived because if a problem could not be solved, then they just got smarter. They learned more or sought help. An entire industry was built by smart people who want to get smarter.

The above process has been used by ILM to create the digital dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the robots in Transformers, a man of molten steel for the Terminator series, expansive light saber battles for the Star Wars prequels, and more.

Moreover, the above process is a model on how to do hard things — in any industry or area of life.

How to Eat a Shoe, Or Do Anything Else Hard

“If I can eat a shoe, you can make a film.”

So how did Werner Herzog eat his own shoe? Fortunately, the event was captured in a documentary. And fortunately for all of us, the process to eat a shoe can show us how to do something that seems impossible.

Here’s how Werner Herzog ate a shoe.

  • Herzog put the shoe in a big pot.
  • Then, he filled the pot with spices, broth, and his favorite foods and cooked them all together.
  • Once the shoe soup cooked, he removed the cooked shoe from the pot.
  • Herzog then cut up the shoe into small bite-sized pieces.
  • Then, piece by piece, Herzog ate the entire shoe.

Herzog’s method to eat a shoe echoes back to the ILM method to solve hard problems. Break down the problem into small pieces — pieces that can be solved by one person, or eaten in “one bite”. Then just do that one part, or take that “one bite.” Repeat until the problem is solved.

There is a process to achieve what seems impossible. Fortunately for us, we can follow in the footsteps of those who have chased the impossible. We can study and emulate those who dared to prove that nothing is too hard.

But more importantly, we need people who yearn to do these “hard things”. Not everything worthwhile is easy. Not everything important or significant has a clear answer.

We need people to do hard things for at least two reasons.

  1. First, we have problems without clear answers. Solving those problems are important.
  2. Second, near-impossible is not impossible. Something is not impossible just because there is no clear solution. We need people to prove that hard things are not impossible.

Hard things need to be accomplished. Why not us?

Anyone want to eat a shoe? I might.

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