The great jazz musician Chet Baker once offered the following words of wisdom:
“Do it the hard way, and it’s easy sailing.
Do it the hard way, and it’s hard to lose.
Only the soft way has a chance of failing.
You have to choose.” 1
He was singing about romance, but the principle applies to nearly everything we do in life.
When we choose the hard road, we’re usually rewarded. If you consistently choose the more difficult, less comfortable options in your day-to-day life, you’ll probably end up having an easier life in the long run. For example, by choosing to exercise and meditate every morning for the past two years, I’ve greatly reduced my anxiety and increased my happiness.
On the other hand, when we choose the easy road, we often pay for it later. If you choose to avoid challenging yourself and avoid hard work, you increase the likelihood of facing difficulties down the road. I chose an easy major – Sociology –and I’ve paid for it with reduced career prospects.
If you eat healthy food and exercise, you’ll be rewarded with greater health. But if you eat junk food and avoid exercise, you’ll pay for it with health problems. If you work hard at your job and self-education, you may be rewarded with career advancement. But if you do the bare minimum at work, you’ll probably be passed over for promotions. If you clean your house, you’ll be rewarded with the pleasant serenity of a clean home. If you avoid cleaning, you’ll have to navigate clutter and, if you’re like me, experience the nagging thought that you should clean every time you look at the mess. I could go on.
This isn’t a new idea. Spartan warriors knew this principle and lived by the following motto:
“He who sweats more in training bleeds less in war.”
When it comes to learning, students have a choice between “hard in, easy out” and “easy in, hard out.” If you study and study effectively, your exams will be easier because that hard work convinces your brain to care. But if you take the easy road and use ineffective study methods or choose not to study at all, your exams will be much harder.
Here are some classic examples of this principle applied to school:
- It’s easier to zone out or doodle in class. It’s harder to pay attention, take notes, and ask questions.
- If you wait until the last minute to study, you won’t benefit from the effects of spaced repetition. It’s harder to study early and often, but it makes the test easier.
- It’s easier to use a Quizlet someone else made, but it’s much more effective to make your own. Hand-made flashcards are even better.
- It’s easier to study by looking over the materials, but it won’t form strong memories the way making written product will.
- It’s better to take – and fail – a practice test than to avoid taking a practice test and failing the real thing.
- It’s harder to spend the car-ride home from tutoring doing mental recall practice rather than thumbing through social media, but that’s a powerful way to strengthen the memory of what you’ve just learned.
You have to choose.
It’s much easier to choose the easy way. It’s easier to give into temptation or to allow inertia to keep us on the couch. Hard work isn’t just hard to do, it’s hard to choose. But it is the right choice. And knowing that it’s the right choice makes it a little easier.
We have to remember what impact the choices we make today will have on our future. Doing the hard thing today is a cost paid only by your present self, while the benefits will be enjoyed by all of your future selves.
The poet and world-champion weight lifter Jerzy Gregorek put this best:
“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.”2
Do it the hard way. You won’t regret it.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Baker, Chet. “Do It The Hard Way.” It Could Happen To You. Riverside Records, 1958.
2 Ferriss, Tim. “The Lion of Olympic Weightlifting, 62-Year-Old Jerzy Gregorek.” The Tim Ferriss Show, #228. http://tim.blog/2017/03/16/jerzy-gregorek/.