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How to Do Hard Things

By Dave Stuart Jr.

The problem with our classes, from a motivational standpoint, is they've been surpassed by video games. Video games, as I laid out in my argument last week, are great at making players want to spend the time/effort/frustration costs of mastery; my world history class, less so.

The solution, however, isn't to “gamify” my class; rather, it's to teach our students, both with our lessons and with our lives, that doing hard things in real life is more lastingly satisfying than a video game can ever be.

Do Hard Things and the “five kinds of hard”

Do Hard Things is an attitude that says, “I am a person who smiles in the face of challenge.” It is a belief system both audacious and humble: audacious in its hunch that humans rarely realize their potential; humble in its awareness of the self's propensity for avoiding hard work.

According to Alex and Brett Harris, authors of Do Hard Things, there are “five kinds of hard”:

  1. Things that are outside your comfort zone.
  2. Things that go beyond what is expected or required.
  3. Things that are too big to accomplish alone.
  4. Things that don’t earn an immediate profit.
  5. Things that challenge the cultural norm.

The question now, for you, is which of these “kinds of hard” could you pursue this year, in front of your students? Which of these gives you an idea for not just telling your kids to work hard now toward a better life in the future? Which of these could transform you, just a bit more, into the inspiring teacher you set out to be when you got into this gig? (After all, this kind of transformation is a lifestyle, a way of being — not a line with an end point.)

FIgure 1: Luke Wilcox, prior to meeting the President.

Figure 1: Luke Wilcox, prior to meeting the President.

Hard things all around

A fellow West Michigan teacher, Luke Wilcox, says that one of the keys to helping students motivate themselves is “representing success.” He's not just “some guy” talking about this — every year, nearly all of his AP Statistics students pass the AP exam in May. He credits these numbers not to insane pedagogical know-how or silver bullet strategies; instead, he says it's because he has learned over the years how to help his students motivate themselves to do the hard work required for passing AP Statistics.

So what does Luke mean by “representing success”? Basically, he thinks our students are more likely to work hard for us if we're working hard in our own lives — in short, if we're Doing Hard Things. And so Luke does crazy things: he runs races, builds race cars, shakes hands with President Obama (see Fig. 1), and helps write AP Statistics textbooks.

Now, that's pretty over-achieverish, Luke — what about the rest of us?

You are probably doing hard things already

If you're an educator, you've done hard things in the past — you graduated from college (about half of those who start their undergrad don't finish), and you may have your master's degree. Those are hard things; those count.

But when I go back to that list of “five kinds of hard” and think about the people I'm privileged to teach with, I see such an incredible array. If you'll let me brag about my colleagues for a minute for the sake of demonstrating the point, here are some examples.

  • Completing an Iron Man triathlon.
  • Becoming a yoga instructor.
  • Owning and operating a successful business.
  • Pursuing a second master's degree.
  • Teaching an AP course for the first time — with 100 students.
  • Reading 50 novels in a year.
  • Speaking at a regional teacher's conference — since her first year as a teacher (two people have done this, actually).
  • Overcoming a serious illness.
  • Mentoring a younger teacher.
  • Learning to be a parent.
  • Learning to be a spouse.
  • Coaching a sport.
  • Saving $40,000 in a year.
  • Learning a second language.

Figure 2: Mrs. Holt keeps this poster in her classroom.

I could go on. For many of you, you don't even need to start a hard thing — you just need to be thoughtful about how you can use your engagement with challenge, with a high goal, with a long-term vision, as a case study of how one becomes successful.

In my own hallway, colleague and hero Brooke Holt keeps a poster in her classroom of what we Tech 21 teachers are doing this year (see Fig. 2). These are hard things that we are encouraging each other with (as adults) and seeking to do in front of our students — not to be show offs, but to be one more example in our students' lives of people who live for more than consumption.

Share a hard thing you're doing or are going to do this school year

My question to you is this: what hard thing can you do this year that could serve as a life example for your students? What's something you know you need to work on, but maybe you've been holding back? What's an achievement you've always dreamed of doing, but you've never had the gumption to start pursuing it, one tiny, dogged step at a time?

Share in the comments, if you'd like. I think that teachers, principals, and educators are some of the most inspiring groups of people in the world; let's remind ourselves of that.

Thank you to Luke Wilcox and Brooke Holt. Brooke inspires and encourages me every day; she also, in a way, introduced me to Luke; finally, she is so fun to joke around with, especially when she starts going insane about how cool math is. Luke's phrase “represent success,” and his overall life domination, get my mind running at high RPMs. He needs to write a book someday (psssst, Luke — I publish books). Both of them have an excellent way of sharpening my mind and emboldening my heart.

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22 Responses to How to Do Hard Things

  1. Janice K October 13, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    My “hard thing” this year is being public ally accountable for my weight loss/fitness program. I am at the gym 3x a week, walking 2 miles a day and eating less junk! I am down 14 pounds in 9 weeks. Looking to hit “30 down” by Christmas. Then a 5K walk in January????

  2. Melissa October 13, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    I play roller derby for our local all-star team (Central New York Roller Derby), and I am constantly equating my experiences in roller derby to life in school. Primarily, this isn’t just a team of girls who get together. There are tryouts, attendance requirements, and rosters that are released weeks in advance. I don’t just GET playtime. I EARN it. It’s HARD work to make that roster. I also tell kids that I’m not really a “touchy feely” kinda gal, and derby requires me to be touchy feely A LOT. I have to push myself and put myself into this very uncomfortable situation of touching a lot of other people’s bodies, but the end result is so amazing, that it’s totally worth it!

  3. Mrs. Thompson October 13, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

    I’m learning Adobe Illustrator! [fist pump!]

  4. Kate October 13, 2015 at 6:33 pm #

    I love this. So much! I teach at the worst high school in Connecticut. No, really, we are ranked as the worst (I’m not sure why). If you get kicked out of another school, you end up at my school. So the students come into school with a tremendous sense of hopelessness already. The phrase I’ve heard to most is “that’s too much work, Miss.” They aren’t lazy; they are exhausted by their lives and everything seems insurmountable. The feeling of hopelessness some days is similar to the Swamps of Sadness or the Nothing in The NeverEnding Story. It can suck you in and drag you down.

    The hard thing I do every day is show up…with all the energy I can muster, even if I’m not in the mood. I’m a highly sensitive introvert with a history of depression and anxiety. Every school day is a shock to my system, but I’m here for my students. I know there are kids that are like me. I try to be that person I needed when I was their age. Teaching is really one of the hardest things I do and it’s worth it.

    I really appreciate your blog. You’re a bright light during these rather dark times in education. Thank you.

    • Bonnie Player August 15, 2016 at 11:34 am #

      Kate, I am really blown away by your courage and your fortitude. I, too, teach at the end of the line Alternative High School and I know how hard it is to get up and do it again someday’s. Kudos for all of the teachers who “do hard things” every day. Bless you.

  5. Gabby October 14, 2015 at 12:51 am #

    I’m trying to just say “no” and focus time on my kids at home. They’ve given me lots of time to become a better teacher. Now, I need to be the best mom ever.

  6. Elizabeth October 14, 2015 at 5:02 am #

    I’m changing up how I teach, applying for grants for the first time, and leading professional development based on a subject I don’t live, breathe, and eat. Not bad for an introverted 50+-year-old! Putting it in writing makes my heart palpitate, though :).

    • Marilyn October 16, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

      Good girl!!! Never too young to learn new tricks!

      • Elizabeth October 16, 2015 at 8:14 pm #

        Haha, thanks. I’m hoping you’re right!

  7. Amber October 14, 2015 at 10:33 am #

    I’m writing a text book and trying to start a new program at our school

  8. Diane October 14, 2015 at 11:43 am #

    I’m swimming in changes…and change is hard (and exhausting). I’m going to share your post at the first gathering of a education-professional book study I’m part of. We’re reading “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, pub 2010. My big take away from this book (which I’ve read twice) is that it reminds me to be compassionate about just how exhausting change can be. And that what I might be tempted to think of in another person as “lazy” might just be “exhaustion” when they are undertaking the hard work of changing or growing or learning. I’m also gong to steal the idea of making an anchor chart list of changes each person in our book study is undertaking right now. Great connection to our book. Thanks to everyone for sharing great ideas.

  9. Beth October 14, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

    Well… How about we brainstorm an alternate phrase to “Do hard things.” Teaching junior high…

    • davestuartjr October 14, 2015 at 10:40 pm #

      LOL — I know, right? I’ve thought about changing it to Do hard work. Go with that. Another reader suggested Do difficult things — but that adds a lot of syllables 🙂

      • Sandy July 21, 2016 at 12:35 pm #

        I’m new to this newsletter and just read through all of your comments. Dave, this is a great newsletter. As for the comment about changing the phrase “Do hard things”, I have a solution. My master’s swim coach bit my head off when I used the word “hard” to describe a swim set. He told me to use “challenging” instead. It makes sense. “Hard” makes us wince. “Challenging” has a sense of at least trying to embrace something. I use this with my students all the time.

        • davestuartjr July 21, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

          Sandy, thank you! I like that substitution a lot.

  10. Wendy October 20, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

    Great post, Dave! I am continually awed by your insights. You inspire me to do hard things!

  11. Bonnie Player August 15, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    It was kind of a “wow” moment for me to substitute exhausted for lazy. It makes so much sense. Having gone through some big changes at home (which were totally exhausting) I know I will look at my students differently this year. Thank you Dave, even when I go back and read again I find new inspiration. Bonnie

  12. Christopher Carey November 15, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

    I’m working to qualify for the Boston Marathon in December. Last year, I thought I had it, but got sick just days before my marathon.

  13. Lori Skoller November 16, 2016 at 10:42 am #

    After teaching sixth grade for 12 years, I asked for a grade change. It’s just one year up to seventh, but it definitely caused me to shake things up and get reenergized.


  14. Katie Deakins August 16, 2017 at 8:38 am #

    Beth, I teach high school students in an alternative school. Many are emotionally stuck as junior high kids with their behaviors, so I, too, hesitated to put “Do Hard Things” on my wall. I did it anyway. My only classroom rule is as follows: I will treat all people, especially myself, with dignity and respect at all times. So far, they respect the learning environment in my class enough to see those words and not say all of the inappropriate things they are thinking in front of me. I hold them and myself to a very high standard every day. We don’t always make it, but we learn from it when we fall short. I say we, because it applies to me as much as it does them. Sorry to sound so preachy, but if I can do it with the students no one else wants, anyone can.

    • davestuartjr August 16, 2017 at 3:36 pm #

      Katie, this is a good word. I have to say that I’ve not yet had kids make fun of this — I’m sure it’s happened, but never with the whole class. I think it’s because they know that I’m serious about it, and they appreciate what I’m saying — that they are worthy of being taken seriously; that they deserve to be expected to challenge themselves, to do hard things. Thanks Katie!

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