Doing Hard Things

No Hard School Subjects

Contact Artist at Work

Calculus Student at Work

x(t) = a0     + a1 cos (wot + q1) + a2 cos (2wot + q2)
+ … + aN cos (Nwot + qN)



In my December 8, 2013, post  I said,

You can do anything you really want to do.

Here are three ideas from that post:

  • No one taught you how to learn; you were born with that ability.
  • You have a brain that solves problems for you.
  • You don’t solve problems with your conscious mind.

No More Difficult Than a Banana

For far too long I used to think there are some really tough realms out there –  walking the Appalachian trail, understanding particle physics, chemistry – all sorts of things I thought were way beyond my reach.  Then one day it came upon me that those “difficulties” were not out there at all.  “Difficulty” was an idea in my head, not an aspect of whatever it was I was looking at. What I was looking at didn’t come with a label reading Very Difficult Stuff. What a great insight that was.

Come to think about it, you shouldn’t get out of bed without knowing there’s nothing outside your head that’s hard or not hard.  “Difficult” is an idea you have about something.  That “something” is totally indifferent to whatever labels you throw at it.    All those strange squiggles in a calculus book or a chemistry book? They’re  just there.  They’re no more “difficult” than a banana. They don’t bite. “Difficulty” is something you decided.   (Do you really think card sharps, pickpockets, magicians started out that way?)

I’ll get back shortly to how you can get the upper hand on any school subject – no matter how “tough” you may have decided it is – or anything else in your life – once you know that it’s you who decide.

A Pink Rubber Ball

Contact juggler Richard Hartnell, Photo by Mike Kepka, The SF Chronicle

Photo by Mike Kepka, The SF Chronicle

Here’s just one anecdote from among a drawer-full  I’ve collected over the years of “impossible” things people have mastered.  I read in the San Francisco Chronicle (9/16/13) about a contact juggler named Richard Hartnell who does such magical things with a pink rubber ball that people toss folding money at his feet just because he’s so wonderful – which turns out to be plenty to pay his rent and food bills. [See for yourself:  Richard Hartnell Contact Juggling in London – You Tube]

When he was three, Hartnell saw something he thought was wonderful, a scene in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth in which David Bowie appears to magically manipulate a small crystal ball with the tips of his fingers.  The magician was actually Michael Moschen hidden behind Bowie and doing the juggling “blind.”  Moschen’s juggling, Henson said,  was the closest thing to real magic he had ever seen.  That bit of magic so impressed Hartnell that later as a teenager he bought a pink rubber ball and tried to pull off what Moschen had done.  Well, reader, you know what’s coming, don’t you?

I messed around and I did everything wrong,” Hartnell told the Chronicle reporter Mike Kepka.  “It got so hard I stopped.”  I’ve know thousands of students – and myself, too, when I was younger – who bumped up against something too hard . . .  and stopped.  But, then, here’s the great thing Hartnell learned, and it applies to just about anything:

The technique was called contact juggling and,  looking back, Hartnell called learning that technique “a really bad learning curve. It’s not like regular juggling, where you can learn to juggle three balls in, like, a weekend.  Contact juggling sucks for a long time.  It’s like the violin of juggling.” So he stopped, but later on he witnessed some amazing fire juggling and decided to give contact juggling another try, and after some relentless practice, he developed the ability to do the basic moves.

Practice Is Magic

Here’s what Hartnell said about that stage of learning a “hard” thing, and it’s something every learner needs to know and accept:

“You just have to be really open to being terrible at something. Generally, if you can think about it and practice hard enough, you’re going to get it.”


Balancing the ball on the outside of his bent elbow, he told Kepka, “That took me six months to learn.”  What he added was such a profound insight that I’m putting it in bold type: “I think practice is magic.”

The Role of Feeling in Problem Solving


It’s a feedback loop.


How you can get the upper hand on any school subject:

Once you begin to catch on to something, you want to do it more.  You can feel the rush of pleasure – I got it! – and you want to keep going.  Moving a 90mm ball around his fingertips, Hartnell went on to say, “This is what I want to do and get better at.  It’s a feedback loop. The more you do it the better you get at it, and the better you get at it, the more you want to do it.”

The Mess-Around Theory of Learning Re-visited


                                                            How to study

How to Study

Differential calculus: Take a little pail and a little shovel, open your textbook and  start messing around just the way you used to at the beach. When you were three, playing in the sand was not something you had to do.  And even though you may never have been there before, you did not think of it as hard.  Well, differential calculus is a sandy beach.  Play around in that sand and pretty soon, you’ll start to notice little things, and after a while you’ll begin to get curious. Go ahead.  Do everything wrong.  Sooner or later you’ll do something right. Hmm.  Before  you know it,  you’re making a castle.  While you’ve been messing around your non-conscious mind was busy sorting things out, piecing together a pattern, telling your conscious mind what tools you need.  You know exactly how this works.  You’ve been here many times.

JOY in Chinese Letters


There are no hard subjects.

3 thoughts on “Doing Hard Things

  1. The key to learning anything is “wanting to”, “readiness” — remember the Zen saying, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.”

    Thank you for this entry; it’s reminded me of things that were just hovering on the edges of my conscious pushed out there by the seemingly impossible demands shoved to center stage in my conscious mind . . . I’m going to try again with renewed vigor to be “ready” to “mess around,” to risk failure . . .


    • Your comments are always right on, Carol. Thanks for the feedback. A close friend liked this post and agreed that it’s right. The problem, and I know it’s a crucial one, is, as she said, uncoiling a wound-up spring in the pit of the stomach. That’s right. Well, I suppose, one can start in little ways and watch as the process unfolds. That leap of the cliff of safety is a big one, I know. We all know how wonderful the feeling is, though, as we fall untethered through space.


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