Doing Hard Things for the Wrong Reasons

I wanted to start this out by saying: I wasn’t born a friendly and outgoing person.

But apparently that’s a lie. According to my parents and various other bystanders, toddler Jenny was in fact a rather violently friendly and outgoing person. 

I don’t really remember it. I vaguely remember feeling like everyone in my tiny world was my particular friend, and I remember being told that I need to be less affectionate with people, especially men. I also remember happily participating in our little school’s Christmas program when I was four years old, which would generally have been too young but my daddy was the teacher and for some reason they decided to let me. 

But it remains true that despite being a friendly child, as a teenager I became the exact opposite. I looked inside myself and, upon discovering some introverted qualities, I chose to make that my entire personality. Everything else had to sit down and shut up.

Clearly I had some deeper issues going on, but for the purposes of this post, we’re going to skate merrily over them and focus on how, approximately 6 to 8 years later, I learned that I could be more than that. I could be introverted and not be shy or timid. I could be introverted and still like attention – I’m just more specific about it.

Most astonishingly (to me), I could be introverted and still be perfectly capable of talking to people, even strangers. This was astonishing to me because I had chosen to embrace my introverted qualities specifically because I felt like I was very bad at people skills, and so I assumed if I would have good people skills, the introversion would fly away.

But upon more experience, I’ve found that people skills and being extroverted or introverted have almost nothing to do with each other. Just because an extrovert enjoys being around people because they get energy from being with people does not mean that they’re good at having quality relationships with those people. At best it means that it’s less painful for them to practice their relationship skills, so they might have a better chance of developing those skills – if they’re paying attention.

It took me a minute to work out that my introversion and people skills weren’t linked, because it did become less exhausting for me to be with people once I stopped feeling like I was failing at every interaction. So it seemed to track that if I just kept practicing, if I just kept doing it, eventually I would learn to delight in spending time with people and meeting new people and talking to strangers and making phone calls and every social thing ever.

So I did that. I spent an entire month where I had a conversation with a stranger every day, so I believe I know how to do that. I no longer have any fear of calling customer service, a thing which I used to literally get anxiety about, because I know I can talk to them with enough confidence that they generally don’t treat me like an idiot. I learned how to be in a crowd with a reasonable level of inner peace.

These things used to look impossibly difficult and scary. But then, even though I knew I could do them, they still felt hard. I didn’t like them. So I would avoid doing them whenever it didn’t seem necessary, and then I felt guilty.

I felt guilty for not wanting to make friends at the grocery store. I felt guilty for not wanting to go to parties when I’m invited. I felt guilty for not socializing more. I felt guilty for choosing to eat my lunch alone at my desk instead of in the breakroom with other people.

I felt guilty because I thought if I wasn’t doing something because I didn’t enjoy it, then I was simply being lazy. I was staying in my comfort zone. I wasn’t pushing myself. I was failing as a human to strive for my potential.

It wasn’t really about being more social; that’s just a specific example. I had a belief that anything I didn’t enjoy, I should do. Anything that felt hard was automatically good for me.

I can blame this on growing up in a culture where anything enjoyable was suspicious because it was probably “gratifying the flesh”, but while that may have something to do with it, I also think it’s deeper than that. It’s part of the fundamental human understanding that to receive something of value, we must sacrifice something of value – and we believe this so deeply that we do not value the things that we believe cost nothing.

But I think there’s an important difference between being willing to do hard things for a purpose, and doing hard things as a purpose. Because doing hard things just because they’re hard with no other goal in mind – how is that different from self-flagellation?

And yes, there are times and seasons when I have chosen to do hard things purely to teach myself that I can do hard things – to build those muscles of endurance and strength. I think it’s important to know that about yourself: to know that you are capable of and willing to do things that are difficult for you, so that on the days when you don’t do those things it’s not because you can’t, it’s not because of weakness or fear – it’s because you’re choosing something that’s more important to you.

But I still think there’s a difference between choosing a hard path because I believe it’s the best way to get where I want to go, and choosing a hard path because it’s hard, regardless of where it leads.

There’s this thing I read that talked about the difference between staying in your strength zone versus staying in your comfort zone, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Because I think that’s the key.

Doing accounting is never going to look as hard to me as doing sales. But if I decide that means I need to do sales, I’m going to hate my job (and yes, I’ve tried it) and I’m not going to be excellent at it. But it’s not that accounting is always easy and comfortable. It only becomes easy and comfortable if I stop growing, if I stop learning, if I stop taking on new responsibilities that require higher levels of knowledge and skill. Accounting is my strength zone; and that means it’s fun to me and I will wake up at 5:45am to study it, which doesn’t feel easy or comfortable when the alarm goes off – and because I enjoy it, I’m far more likely to do what’s needed to be excellent at it. I could make it my comfort zone, but I don’t have to. 

Being extroverted and outgoing is not my strength zone. I get more enjoyment out of and I’m rather better at thinking and researching and writing than I am at being a delightful guest at twelve parties and making five new friends per week. I believe I provide more value and I certainly receive more value in a conversation with one friend than in a conversation with four. 

And here’s another thing: there’s an arrogance in dismissing the gifts we were given – the talents we were born with, for no better reason than because it feels less painful for us to do those things than the other things. Again, I think that’s partly us undervaluing what we didn’t have to sacrifice as much for.

It took me a minute to realize that okay, accounting actually does not come as easily to everyone else as it does to me. I didn’t grow up doing it or having the slightest interest in doing it, so I was surprised by how quickly it made sense to me and how soon I very much enjoyed it – and so I assumed it would be the same for anyone once they started learning it. 

But apparently not. Not everyone who does accounting finds it to be a whole delight. 

And more importantly, not everyone wants to. 

Like most things, accounting is a skill that almost anyone can learn to do if they want to – but also like most things, not everyone will find it fun or easy. And it’s almost impossible to master a skill if you don’t enjoy the thing itself at all.

And we don’t need to. We don’t need to master every skill. There’s a reason we don’t live in a world alone. There’s a reason that there are people who enjoy sales and customer service. There’s a reason that there are people who enjoy accounting. But if we deliberately choose to do the thing we don’t enjoy and we’re not naturally skilled at, what’s the point of any of us having gifts? Apart from, apparently, helping to make us all a little more miserable.

How difficult and painful my life is, is not, generally speaking, a good measure of my integrity.

It helps me to think about it in levels. If my life is hard on the surface but under whatever I’m currently struggling with there’s a foundation of peace and purpose and gratitude, I generally feel like I’m on the right track. If my life is easy on the surface but underneath there’s a layer of general misery, I’m doing something wrong.

As an example: to have an easy life on the surface financially looks like spending all my money as fast as I make it because I need (want) so many things right now – however, underneath all the instant gratification and pretty things and dopamine, there’s a dark layer of stress fueled by the knowledge that if I miss my next paycheck, I’m not sure how I’m going to pay my bills – which also means I’m trapped in my current job, which means I’m a slave to my boss and my creditors. But I almost never say no to myself when I want to buy something small. I do whatever feels easiest financially at the moment, but if I stop to notice it, I also feel like I really struggle financially all the time.

On the other hand, if I have a hard life on the surface financially, that means I often do say no to things I feel like buying right now – not because I can’t afford them, but because I want to do more than just consume all the money I’ve been trusted with. So I wait to buy things. I’m choosy about where my money goes. I plan it out. Sometimes that can feel hard, especially in the beginning when it’s not yet a habit, especially if my friends aren’t doing the same thing. Sometimes it can feel hard if I care about whether or not I look like I have money to the people around me. In a way it gets easier with time and growth, but also I just start wanting bigger things because bigger things become possible to me. I can increase my income and my savings by a lot more than you’d think before I can no longer find a way to spend it all, especially if I’ve been in the habit of spending it all, so discipline is still required if I want to continue to grow – and sometimes discipline can feel hard. But underneath that there’s a wonderfully not-hard feeling of knowing I have enough in my reserves that I could miss more than a month of paychecks and I’d be fine. And it’s a wonderfully not-hard feeling to know that I could quit my job tomorrow and because of what I’ve done with my money, my income wouldn’t stop.

It works the same with my marriage, or any other relationship. It can feel hard to have the difficult conversations. Avoiding all conflict feels much easier on the surface. But underneath it, I know whether there’s a clear path between the two of us or whether it’s covered in misunderstanding and hidden resentments – and that’s what really decides whether being in this relationship feels hard and heavy every day, or if it feels like life and love.

But if I think that because I have to be willing to deal with conflict in order to have a good marriage, that must mean that conflict = a good marriage, I will create conflict needlessly. I will invent issues so that I can feel like I’m working on my marriage so I can feel like I’m a good spouse.

I will not have a good life if I am not willing to do things that are hard. But hard does not automatically mean good. Sometimes hard is a heads-up that this is not the way for me.

To be dramatic about it: for most of us, it would be hard to murder someone, at least the first time. That doesn’t mean you should do it.

So I’m learning to ask: 

Am I doing this hard thing because I want the good I see on the other side of it?

Or am I doing this hard thing just because it’s hard and my brain is telling me that struggle = righteousness?

Are these stinging cuts from fighting through brambles so I can move forward on my path, or are they from slashing my own back with a whip?

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