Let’s do a 30-second experiment. Ready? Grab a piece of paper and a pen, divide the paper into two columns, and label them “Easy Path” and “Hard Path”. Now, put each of the following adjectives in the column where it fits best (don’t overthink it, just follow your initial gut response):
- Boring –
- Joyful +
- Fulfilling +
- Rewarding +
- Challenging +
- Worthless –
- Copout –
- Cowardly –
- Meaningful +
- Desirable +
- Uneventful –
- Empty –
If you found the exercise to be quick and easy, you probably ended up with one column full of positively charged words (Joyful, Fulfilling, Rewarding, Challenging, Meaningful, Desirable), and the other column full of negatively charged words (Boring, Worthless, Cop out, Cowardly, Uneventful, Empty). Although your word distribution is affected by the way you were raised, your belief system, and your culture, there is a good chance that you ended up with a positive-sounding Hard Path column, and a negative-sounding Easy Path column.
Because that’s what we’re often told:
- The meaning lies in overcoming hardships
- Work hard if you want to reap the rewards
- After the hard road, success tastes sweeter
- Always choose the path with most resistance, because that’s how you grow
- All great accomplishments take hard work
“Life is a series of conflicts between the right way and the easy way. The easy way will always be here to sweep you away, you just need to pick up your feet.” (this one is actually from an awesome motivational 3-min video with Michael Phelps for Men’s Fitness). Is that really true, though, that the hard path is the better one? No, not always. Think of the following scenarios:
- You were offered a promotion (for which you were well qualified) into your dream job because you were at the right place at the right time rather than because of your qualifications. Easy. Did that promotion lose its appeal because of the ease with which you got it?
- If you’re a mom who had a fairly easy and uncomplicated labor (say, in comparison to an emergency C-section with complications), and ended up with a healthy baby as a result, did you feel like you were less in any way?
- You were dreaming of purchasing a certain thing, started putting away the money for it, and then unexpectedly, got that item as a gift. Easy. Did the item lose its value for you because you got it so easily?
- Your colleagues have been putting in long hours and going crazy trying to solve a particular problem at work. You didn’t participate in that madness, and in a way, gave up on that problem. Then, the most brilliant, elegant, and practical solution to the problem came to you while you were in the shower, and that solution was implemented in your company. Easy. Was your solution not useful or satisfying because it came to you easily?
As you see, Men’s Fitness promo was wrong to contrast “the right way” and “the easy way”. Because often, the easy way is the right way.
The million dollar question is: how can you tell when it’s best to take the hard path and when to take the easy path to get the results that you want, without feeling emptied out (or plain empty) at the end?
Here are some ideas for helping you decide whether to take the hard path or the easy path.
1. Redefine your options from “hard path vs. easy path” to “path that feels right vs. path that feels way off”. Then, take the “feels right” path.
The “feels right” path is always the one that’s joyful (because it’s right, because it’s you), fulfilling, rewarding, challenging, meaningful, and desirable. Sometimes it is an easy path, and other times, it’s hard path.
It’s not a trivial task to differentiate between “feels right” and “feels way off”. At 5 a.m. one can argue that sleeping in feels right, and getting up to run feels way off. At 10 a.m., however, the same person may have a completely different perspective, sitting at the meeting and wishing that he had gone for a run earlier that morning.
To address this, don’t leave this decision for the time when you’re under (for example, when you’re in the middle of a dream at 5 a.m., you may not be in the position to make the best decision). When you’re rested and clear-headed, decide what you stand for, as if no one was judging you. Maybe, you stand for getting enough sleep (which is essential, because our brain does a tremendous amount of work while we’re sleeping that it can’t do while we’re awake). Maybe, you stand for being in great physical shape, no matter what. Your “feels right” path depends on what you decide you stand for. “Easy” and “hard” are not always factors in “feels right” path.
2. Take the easy path when you’ve invested enough into creating conditions for easy paths to show up.
Congratulations, your hard work paid off! Sometimes, the path looks easy when you’re only looking at the tail end of it. If you take into consideration everything that you’ve invested along the way, perhaps, the path wasn’t so easy. For example, a dancer may look effortless on the dance floor not because “the dance is easy”, but because the dancer was so well prepared for the dance that it felt easy.
3. Take the easy path when the hard path is just not happening, no matter what.
You want to get a certain project done – rewrite your resume, write a book, clean out your closet, move out, lose 10 pounds – and yet, you find yourself procrastinating instead of doing it. It often happens when the project seems insurmountable. Sometimes, we find ourselves months and even years later, without moving an inch toward getting that big project done. It just feels too hard. Ask yourself: what would feel more manageable than that BIG project?
Break down into small chunks that you know you can handle. Don’t lose 10 pounds; instead, replace Diet Coke with water – that’s it. Don’t write a book; instead, commit 15 minutes per day to freestyle writing. Little by little, easy step by easy step, over time you’ll find yourself closer to accomplishing your goal.
When a hard path is just not happening, finding a more pleasant, easier alternative as a way to keep yourself moving forward will do the trick.
4. Take the easy path when the hard path takes so much out of you that the outcome becomes “not worth it”.
If, in the process of taking the hard path, you lose the sense of who you are and what is important to you, if you have to compromise your integrity, if there are no rewards other than “having taken the hard road”, if you have to give up on what you value most… take the easy path.
5. Take the easy path when you need or want to invest your time and energy elsewhere.
Pick your battles. It may not matter whether you do all the projects yourself, to perfection, but out of all your projects there may be one or two that really matter. Invest your energy where it matters, and take an easy path elsewhere.
Struggle and suffering don’t prove that you’re on the right path. What proves that you’re on the right path is the feeling of “this is really who I am, in my heart of hearts, and this is what I stand for”.
In May 2015, I’m offering a retreat for curious and analytical thinkers who want to learn to use their gut response for making better decisions. This challenging and restorative retreat will be held at the picturesque Garrison Institute, where you will be served wholesome meals, have a chance to live in a former monastery, explore the walking paths of the estate, meditate, and even walk a labyrinth. Want to learn more? Visit http://IntuitionLeap.com/Retreat .
With love and gratitude,
Alina Bas, M.A., Executive Coach & Life Strategist
I coach leaders through making difficult decisions in a way that is aligned with their core values.
Tel.: (917) 208-8094
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