I’m not a runner, but I ran six half-marathons once. Growing up in New England, it was always a dream to one day run the Boston Marathon but training for and running six half-marathons was all I needed to realize how difficult that would be. I learned that running is hard and running long distances is even harder. Although I only conquered the 13.1 mile race, I learn a lot about myself and what I could do if I didn’t quit.
“If you’re going through hell, keep on going. Don’t slow down, if you’re scared, don’t show it.” Rodney Atkins
The truth is, long distant running is not about bragging rights, personal records, t-shirts or race medals. It’s about challenging yourself to do something difficult. Most people see what happens on race day but they don’t witness the months of training and the hours spent grinding out the miles day after day. There is excitement the day you sign up for a race and the day you finish a race, but the real work and struggle is done in the middle.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Theodore Roosevelt
I have been reading Donald Miller’s book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and it has me thinking about the importance of the hard work in the middle of any difficult challenge and how it changes you. As an entrepreneur, I can fully relate. There is excitement in starting a new company and setting out on a new course. But, after the newness wears off, the hard work begins. Most people never see all the effort that goes into getting a new business off the ground and how it affects the people involved. Miller talks about this in a passage called “The Thing about a Crossing.”
It’s like this when you live a story: The first part happens fast. You throw yourself into the narrative, and you’re finally out in the water; the shore is pushing off behind you and the trees are getting smaller. The distant shore doesn’t seem so far, and you can feel the resolution coming, the feeling of getting out of your boat and walking the distant beach. You think the thing is going to happen fast, that you’ll paddle for a bit and arrive on the other side by lunch. But the truth is, it isn’t going to be over soon. The reward you get from a story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you imagined. The point of the story is never about the ending, remember. It’s about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle.
As Miller suggests, the hard work in the middle of any difficult challenge is more important than the ending. There are three distinct reasons for this:
The struggle builds character. An easy life is one that doesn’t change you. Challenge brings about change. The struggle requires determination, courage, intensity and perseverance. Some days it takes everything to keep going especially when the end seems nowhere in sight. It’s those moments, like being on the ninth mile of a half marathon on a bridge in the cold, windy, pouring rain, that you find out who you are. If you don’t quit, you learn you can do amazing things.
The struggle builds relationships. As I wrote in 5 Reasons to Celebrate the Tough Times, persevering through a difficult challenge with a team or another person builds strong bonds that last a lifetime. When you suffer and struggle together, you build a defining moment in your relationship. You build mutual respect. You create a mental catalog of similar experiences. This is why I can instantly reconnect with shipmates from the Navy or the people I worked with during a difficult labor dispute. Donald Miller learned this while biking across the country with fifteen strangers. After the first three weeks of struggling, he said, “the pain bound us together.”
The struggle builds the story. Every great story has a hero’s journey. The main character must struggle and overcome a major obstacle or challenge. As an audience, we become endeared to the hero as he endures hardships and trials. This is the same with people and organizations. We are attracted to those who have faced trials and overcome. We appreciate the cancer survivor, the wounded veteran, and the entrepreneur who struggles for years to build a great company. We love stories like that of J.K. Rowling, who lived on welfare and struggled to get by as a single mother before she became the world’s most famous author. The tougher the story, the more people are interested in you.
“Never throughout history has a man who lived a life of ease left a name worth remembering.” Theodore Roosevelt
The thing is, if you find yourself in the middle of a struggle with seemingly no end in sight, you’re in a good place. The hard work in the middle of any difficult challenge is more important than the ending. You are growing as a person and learning what you are capable of. You are building your character and the relationships with the people around you. You are also building a story worth remembering. So, if you’re going through hell, don’t stop. Keep going.
If you liked this post, you’ll love my new book, All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner.