6 Tools You Need to Do Hard Things and Answer Your Life Calling

Each of our spheres of influence is crackling with opportunities for us to reap significance, satisfaction, and strength (for ourselves and for our loved ones) by making new hardships.

The kind of hardships that are optional, anyway. While we use involuntary struggles by understanding them differently, and can be aided in this by putting on our trusty struggle-specs and peering through the potential perspectives to reframe the struggles, we use voluntary struggles by undertaking them diligently, and can be aided in this by putting on struggle-spurs and prodding ourselves with them to do the potential struggles.

What are struggle-spurs? Recall that, ideally, we’d with, be, and do. Certain types of ‘with-ing’, being, and doing can spur us toward the voluntary hardships we'd all otherwise be inclined to avoid.

So put on struggle-spurs and goad yourself toward the hard-but-rewarding works that have been set before you.

Prod yourself with the ‘with’ struggle-spurs to undertake potential struggles requiring some company

How do the communities you’re in move you? The camaraderie of struggle-spurs nos. 1 or 2 may be just what’s needed to nudge you to more than you could possibly imagine being able to do on your own.

Struggle-spur no. 1: sidekick(s)

Jim Rohn said that each of us is the average of the five individuals with whom he/she spends the most time.[1] It follows that if you surround yourself with supportive[2] people who deliberately undertake rewarding challenges, you’re more likely to join the fun yourself.

Want to move from selfishness to sacrifice? Join a generous community. When we look upon beautiful examples of selflessness, or are the recipients of prodigious generosity, we’re moved to give more ourselves. Want to move from self-sabotage to submission?[3] Get some gracious friends who’ll nonetheless call you to higher places. Want to move from squandering what you’ve been given to sweating for a worthwhile goal? Root yourself in a ‘going’ community, a tribe of people who aren’t stagnant but are moving outward, shoulder-to-shoulder, with a purpose.

Struggle-spur no. 2: solidarity

I once heard a speaker (his name escapes me) exhort his audience to reject the temptation to ‘castle’ through life. When we ‘castle’, we distance ourselves from anything that might make us uncomfortable, cause us harm, or disrupt our agenda, and I see in myself the tendency to do just that. I wall myself off from risk and from the needs of others. And yet, we’re called to do the opposite, to be our brother’s keeper. Of everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.

But it’s not just our sense of responsibility that moves us to sacrifice. Pope Francis, writing during the coronavirus pandemic, said, “If we are to come out of this crisis less selfish than when we went in, we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain. To come out of this crisis better, we have to recover the knowledge that as a people we have a shared destination. The pandemic has reminded us that no one is saved alone. What ties us to one another is what we commonly call solidarity. Solidarity is more than acts of generosity, important as they are; it is the call to embrace the reality that we are bound by bonds of reciprocity. On this solid foundation we can build a better, different, human future.”[4]

The ‘with’ struggle-spurs move us to make hardship from this; we’re abler because of the significance of being rooted with loved ones.

Prod yourself with the ‘be’ struggle-spurs to undertake potential struggles requiring some context

What encourages you when you encounter resistance? The reassurance of struggle-spurs nos. 3 or 4 may be just what’s needed to drive you forward in the face of adversity.

Struggle-spur no. 3: story

Each of us has a life calling, the set of frequencies at which we in our humanity and in our individuality resonate most deeply, and ‘personal leadership’ is the discipline of discerning, heeding, and humbly seeking to answer that calling.[5] Since there will be difficulties along the way, your calling is an invitation to hardship, to adventure. Your life therefore has all the makings of a story, and your story is, in turn, but one chapter in a larger tale.

A healthy awareness of the stories in which you have - or have been offered - a part can focus your attention, your intentions, and your energy. Moreover, this sense of where you come from, where you’re going, and what it’ll likely take to get there compels you to move forward. When you read a page-turner, the story pulls you in; when you’re in a page-turner, the story pushes you forward, wherever you are along the path. So engage in a little self-talk, reminding yourself of the stories you’re in, the roles you play,[6] and even how far you’ve come. Progress, even a little,[7] begets progress.[8]

Struggle-spur no. 4: success

As humans, we’re ‘successful’ when we’re flourishing, that is, when we’re growing in significance, satisfaction, and strength. Past struggles, your own or someone else’s, have the potential to produce in you significance, satisfaction, and strength, which in a kind of virtuous cycle, then form you into someone more willing to tackle the next hardship.

The newly-crawling baby has the courage to strike out even farther this time because of the significance she feels when she looks back and sees the smiling, trusted face of her mama, who’s sacrificed much for her. The disciplined employee again declines to gossip with his co-workers because of the satisfaction of believing that at some point others have done likewise for him. He’s counting on it, in fact, and he’s grateful. The master in her field can navigate the thorniest problems she encounters because of the strength of her expertise[9] and sense of humor,[10] both of which have been refined by many fires.

The ‘be’ struggle-spurs move us to make hardship from this; we’re more willing because of the satisfaction of traveling a trusted path.

Prod yourself with the ‘do’ struggle-spurs to undertake potential struggles requiring some capacity

How does what you do (or don’t do) anticipate, and therefore set you up for, success?[11] The readiness of struggle-spurs nos. 5 or 6 may be just what’s needed to get you going and - maybe - to see you through.

Struggle-spur no. 5: systems

Any barrier we’re called to attack is - almost by definition - daunting, and for this reason alone we’re inclined to shy away from it. To make matters worse, though, the field around every worthwhile voluntary barrier tends to tilt away from the barrier because of our own bad habits, susceptibility to distractions, overly-complex workflows, chaotic schedules, poor instincts, ineffective methods, unwillingness to say “no” or accept constraints, lack of preparation, inability to prioritize, uninspiring environment, erratic focus, under-performing tools, etc., all of which systematically make engaging that meaningful-but-already-scary barrier an uphill battle. We must replace these counterproductive practices, which we’ve either inherited or unknowingly allowed to accrue, with systems for ‘personal management’[12] that alter the terrain around important barriers in such a way that we actually glide toward them instead. In short, we must make opting into useful hardship…easy.

Chefs know this to be true. “The system that makes kitchens go is called mise-en-place, or, literally, ‘put in place.’ It's a French phrase that means to gather and arrange the ingredients and tools needed for cooking.”[13] Mise-en-place is applicable outside the kitchen, too. If you’ve ever set out clothes for your morning workout the night before, so that, come 5am, there’ll be fewer sticking points on the journey from your warm, comfy bed to the cold, hard kettlebells, then you’ve practiced mise-en-place, perhaps without realizing you were doing so. Mise-en-place is just one example of the kind of systems or routines that make the hardship you want to adopt more obvious, attractive, satisfying, and , of course, easy.[14]

Struggle-spur no. 6: sabbath

Tim Keller says there are different kinds of rest: completely unplanned (doing whatever you think of or feel like in the moment), avocational (doing what’s enjoyable but requires some skill or expertise), contemplative (cultivating deeper, inward replenishment by, for example, journaling), aesthetic (reveling in the goodness of beautiful works of creation), relational (nurturing connection with the most important people in your life), and constrained work (resisting absolute productivity).[15] Rest is a gift in and of itself,[16] not a means to an end, but it does also grant us propellant in the form of perspective and replenishment.

Greg McKeown says, “To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make. Ironically…these things—space, listening, playing, sleeping, and selecting—can be seen as trivial distractions. At best they are considered nice to have. At worst they are derided as evidence of weakness and wastefulness….Yet these very activities are the antidote to the nonessential busyness that infects so many of us. Rather than trivial diversions, they are critical to distinguishing what is actually a trivial diversion from what is truly essential.”[17] Stepping back is not a step backward. Rest and rumination are mobilizers.

The ‘do’ struggle-spurs move us to make hardship from this; we’re readier because of the strength that accompanies expectation.

Ready, willing, and able.

struggle-spurs introduce activation energy - the gumption we sometimes need to take what already exists in the world and ‘make something of the world’. In this case, the as-yet unrealized beneficial hardships all around us.

When we buckle on a pair of struggle-spurs, we make it easier to convert potential to kinesis. Upon meeting the fire-breathing beast, we’re primed to choose perspiration over preservation. We tilt at the dragon, rather than skirt it, producing meaning from what had been mere possibility.

So buckle on, and buckle down.

Struggle is complicated. What have I overlooked?


[1]: Groth, Aimee. “You’re The Average Of The Five People You Spend The Most Time With.” Business Insider, 25 July 2012, www.businessinsider.com/jim-rohn-youre-the-average-of-the-five-people-you-spend-the-most-time-with-2012-7.

[2]: As opposed to subordinate, as the term 'sidekick' tends to imply

[3]: Submission to healthy limits, that is

[4]: Pope Francis. “Opinion | Pope Francis: The Covid-19 Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts.” The New York Times, 1 Dec. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/11/26/opinion/pope-francis-covid.html.

[5]: Perman, Matt. What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done. ePub Edition, Zondervan, 2014.

[6]: Remind yourself, too, about the nature of the roles you play. For example, in the grand, overarching tale we’re all in, each of us is just a supporting character, killed off quickly to boot (though work has already begun on relaunching the story, to use Chris Agar’s term). For millennia, people have kept small reminders of their mortality and the brevity of life. These ‘memento mori’ may take the form of a coin with an image of a skull or perhaps a calendar for literally numbering one’s days. Memento Mori are meant to spur their users to reflection and to time well spent.

[7]: So start small. “The Nonessentialist operates under the false logic that the more he strives, the more he will achieve, but the reality is, the more we reach for the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground…Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all at once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress.” McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. e-book, Crown, 2020.

[8]: In fact, behavioral scientists have long known that even the perception of progress begets progress. Many of the companies you interact with know this and use the tactic of ‘endowed progress’ to induce you to complete particular tasks. For example, LinkedIn’s user interface displays a progress bar depicting how ‘complete’ your profile is. They know that if we know we’ve completed 7 of 8 steps (even if those first seven steps were tasks of little or no significance), we’re more likely to complete the important (to them, anyway) ‘eighth’ step.

[9]: Robert Greene says when we’ve achieved mastery, “We can make decisions that are rapid and highly creative. Ideas come to us. We have learned the rules so well that we can now be the ones to break or rewrite them.” Greene, Robert. Mastery. Reprint, Penguin Books, 2013.

Sometimes we’re strong not only because we possess X, but also because we’re unencumbered by Y, where Y might be ‘the rules’, as Mr. Greene points out, financial debt, etc.

[10]: “What is the power of a sense of humor?” Asks former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. “It helps you to distance yourself from the trial, to look at it from the side, even to enjoy it.” Weiss, Bari. “Natan Sharansky: Why Alexei Navalny Is Playing With His Life.” Common Sense with Bari Weiss, 25 Jan. 2021, bariweiss.substack.com/p/natan-sharansky-why-alexei-navalny.

[11]: For example, when traveling, do you (perhaps because of your anxiety or poor planning or un-examined assumptions) tend to check one or more bags when you fly, or do you travel light, carrying just a single personal item aboard? How are your trips affected by doing so?

[12]: Perman, Matt. What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done. ePub Edition, Zondervan, 2014.

[13]: Charnas, Dan. “For A More Ordered Life, Organize Like A Chef.” NPR, NPR, 11 Aug. 2014, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/08/11/338850091/for-a-more-ordered-life-organize-like-a-chef.

[14]: Clear, James. “The 3 R’s of Habit Change: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick.” James Clear, 13 Nov. 2018, jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change.

[15]: Keller, Tim. “Six Ways to Practice Sabbath.” Redeemer Churches & Ministries, Mar. 2018, www.redeemer.com/redeemer-report/article/sixwaystopracticesabbath.

[16]: Rodríguez, Carlos A. Twitter, 30 January 2021, https://twitter.com/CarlosHappyNPO/status/1355550309662269440.

[17]: McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. e-book, Crown, 2020.

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