The Skill of Doing Hard Things

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I dropped some cheques off with our landlord today. He ran for most of his life (he’s in his 80s now) and still works out regularly. Hard! I asked about his resting heart rate because this guy used to clock out at an impressive 40 beats per minute. Larry (The Landlord) would want me to tell you that he measured this first thing in the morning—right after waking up.

Our talk wandered into training—and eventually—grit. He has a tough mindset and loves to grind. For him, that’s part of the value of the workout. It got me thinking about how we perceive exercise and mental toughness.

The most progressive—and successful—athletic coaches I know have pushed boundaries in terms of what they take away from standard workouts. So, while true grit is required, it’s periodic; not something that is required 24/7. I brought this up to Larry and he said something interesting: “I know that I would have had more success if I’d followed a structured regimen. But I preferred to work hard. It was fun for me.” What he was really telling me is that he enjoyed grinding so much that he actually said no to improving performance in order to say yes to the experience.

Larry’s work ethic was volitional. And that’s the difference. He didn’t grind because someone else told him to or because he wanted to burn calories; he did so primarily because it made his 40 BPM heart sing. I’m not suggesting you mimic Larry. But I do think it’s worth asking where you could choose to push your boundaries just a little more. And where you might like it.

In Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, she cites a 1940 Harvard study that had 130 young males run on a treadmill for five minutes. But the pace and angle were designed to have the average man quit at four (or less). She uses this as an example of not quitting too far away from your true limits. Eventually, you reach a limit. However, your ability to get ever closer to that limit is a trainable skill. It’s not that talent isn’t helpful; it’s just less important than grit.

For years, I’ve been banging the drum about how exercise doesn’t need to be a suffer-fest. Yes, you have to feel uncomfortable. That part is non-negotiable because it produces mental and physical adaptations. However, that feeling is wildly different from exercise truly sucking. The reason is simply that you adapt. For a lot of people, entering into a gym is an act of courage. So, a beginner might stretch their boundaries simply by showing up. That mental strength doesn’t stay in the same place, though. In time, it shifts to the workouts themselves. And it grows from there.

Want to see grit? Check this out. This is a friend’s son in competition. He demonstrates a level of poise and mental toughness that I believe that anyone would be proud to claim. The kid didn’t do something impossible. Instead, he took what he had—and stretched it to the limit in a moment that mattered.

One of the things that I love about exercise is that it is a low-stakes way to practice the skill of grit. It’s not life or death. It’s not even the playoffs. So, when you do a little bit more, you’re choosing to flex your resilience muscles—along with your literal ones. Your capacity to do hard things doesn’t need to be cranked on. In fact, it’s more responsive when you gently stretch it. The skill is doing this consistently.

I have a bit of a challenge for you: take note of the next time you come up against a tough moment in a workout, really pay attention. Notice what signals are telling you that it’s time to stop. Listen to that language. See what you notice. And if you feel like it, you can, like Larry, choose to go a little farther.

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