How to Become a Genius in Life (or: “Life Isn’t Hard Because You’re Doing It Wrong, Life Is Just Hard”)


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Life isn’t easy.

We want it to be. We wish that it were.

But it’s not.

Life is fundamentally not easy.  Life is hard.

But look around and listen to people, listen to ourselves, listen to what we say to ourselves in the privacy of our inner monologues—listen as we complain, as we bitch, as we whine, as we grumble and act cranky. And even though on the surface the object of our complaining, bitching, whining, crankiness, grumbliness may seem different, beneath it all resides the same assumption—that life is supposed to be easy. We feel justified in acting bitchy, grumpy, cranky, ornery, like a jerk, because deep down we think—wish, hope, believe, hold, assume—that life is supposed to be easy. One big gravy train. And somehow right now, at this moment when we’re being bitchy or acting like a hothead, life is somehow treating us unfairly, singling us out for no good reason and giving us a raw deal. Our kids are being difficult. Our job is too difficult (or tedious). Our clients are being difficult. The other drivers on the freeway are being difficult. Our partner or spouse is being difficult. Trying to understand him or her is too difficult. And so on.

“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience.” – Robert Fulghum

And our greatest desire is to make it all go away—all, meaning the difficulty of it. When people say they can’t take “it” any more, the “it” to which they are referring isn’t life but the difficult nature of their lives—the poverty, loneliness, unhappiness, depression, anxiety, fear, and so on.

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” – George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)

But “it”—whatever the “it”—is difficult. Loneliness is difficult. Loss is difficult. Losing a job is difficult. Wrestling with our own mortality is difficult. Trying to be our best is difficult. Emotions are difficult. Relationships are difficult. Wrestling with our demons and not so savory tendencies is difficult. Chemotherapy is difficult. Rehab—rehabbing an injury or from an addiction—is difficult.

But that’s life.

Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “Life is dukkha.”

Life is difficult,” wrote both Rilke and M. Scott Peck.

Love is difficult,” wrote Rilke.

Life isn’t pleasure, it’s constant struggle driven by relentless tension,” said Richard Rose.

Life is complex. . . . There are no easy answers,” wrote M. Scott Peck.

And yet as evident by the vast majority of our complaints we spend much of our time trying to live diametrically opposed to this truth—the truth that life is difficult.

We bitch and we whine and we lash out and we complain—and more importantly, we feel justified in doing so—because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, simpler than it is, a lot less messier than it is, more pleasurable and fun than it is.

And when it’s not we get indignant about it, we mumble and grumble—or worse—about it.

For example, we get grumpy and self-righteous and indignant with elderly people—if not directly, then indirectly—who dare tell us (how dare they!) to relish our time with our children and enjoy it because this too will pass. And we get grumpy and indignant not because of what they’re saying to us but because fundamentally we’re living at odds with the fact that life IS difficult. We’re living in denial. If we actually knew life was difficult, then we’d be much more likely not to sweat so many things and not lose our cool so often and so easily. But because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, because we’re living in denial, we think we are in the right and that it’s appropriate to bitch and complain about anyone who won’t sympathize with our plight whenever we’re feeling moody and give us a consoling there-there pat on the shoulder whenever we’re having a rough go of it with the kids, et cetera. We act as if our hardships and difficulties are unique and unprecedented on all the earth and thus our complaints—and our bitchiness and grumpiness—are entirely justified and appropriate. We think no parent has ever had so tough a go of it as we are having right now with our kids running amuck in the living room or in the aisles of Target or WalMart. How dare someone suggest that there might be a better way of looking at things!? How dare someone butt into our lives and tell us to enjoy these moments of parenthood because it all goes so fast!? That’s exactly what we want—for it—and this moment in particular—to go fast, to go much faster, for us to be able to go elsewhere, a place where life is easier, where we can sit down and rest and enjoy a little peace and quiet and a glass of red wine and something funny on the television, et cetera.

Easy, easy, easy. That’s our heart’s deepest desire—wishing things were easier, wishing that life wasn’t so (as in sooooo) difficult.

It’s been remarked (fairly often) that for we humans, one of the biggest pains (or difficulties) we have to deal with is the pain (or difficulty) of a new idea. And the idea that life actually is fundamentally, inescapably, and unavoidably difficult is at some point in each of our lives both a new and a painful idea. It comes as a quite a shock to us that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be that easy.

So what do we tend to do with this new and disturbing idea? What are we who have been raised and groomed on the assumption that life is supposed to be easy and that it can almost always be made easier to do with this idea that perhaps life actually is quite difficult?

Do we accept the idea with grace and equanimity? In other words, do we accept it easily?

Of course not.

If life is difficult and if accepting a new and potentially disturbing new idea or paradigm (way of looking at things) is difficult, why should accepting it and living in congruence with it be easy? Obviously acceptance too should be difficult—something quite difficult.

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, “Economics, Peace and Laughter” (1971), p. 50.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and accepting that life is difficult, versus proving that life is not difficult, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

And for the vast majority of us that attempt at proof goes no further than our daily litany of complaints, laments, “why me?” moments, and frequent “ugh!” and “arrghh” and other much less civil not to mention much less printable yet sometimes quite colorful expressions and outbursts.

Life is difficult. And so is learning not to whine so much about it and become impatient and overheated—that too is difficult. It’s easier to live in denial and bitch and complain and vent and lose perspective and forget (deny) that life is difficult and messy and oftentimes requires a lot of effort and work and sacrifice and grit. Accepting that life is difficult—and learning (developing the self-control and perspective) not to whine and bitch and complain and take out our foul moods and weak-mindedness (ultimately that’s what it is, after all) on others—is not easy; it’s difficult—very difficult.

But—but—once we accept—actually, once we begin accepting more and more (because more often than not acceptance is not some grand pie in the sky moment, but a bit by bit, inch by inch, turf war) that life actually is difficult, once this becomes our mantra, once this becomes what we more and more tell ourselves or realize when our children or our partner or life is stressing us out, the paradox is that life becomes a bit less difficult. (Because we’re no longer making things even more difficult for ourselves than they already are through how we react to life.)

If our first thought in the morning was “Life is difficult. I’m ready for another difficult day. I want to rise to the challenge of my life and do my best and be my best. I wonder what difficulties and challenges I will be presented with today. I wonder what opportunities for bettering myself and others I will find or create amidst these difficulties?” that would set our hearts and minds in the right direction.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” – Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning

But this way of thinking is likely the farthest thing from most of our hearts and minds first thing in the morning.

More likely we’re unconsciously hoping for an easy fun day.

Yet if we can begin by at least considering the idea that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be easy— and that if it were, we would never become who we’re supposed to be because we would never have cause to get stronger or wiser, and instead we would atrophy, soften, and become spoiled—if we can begin considering this and keeping this a bit more in mind, then perhaps life might paradoxically become a bit easier for us.

And not only might life become a bit easier the more we extend this realization and acceptance into different facets of our lives and live increasingly in alignment with it, life also might become proportionally a bit more joyful and wonderful. Because instead of our minds being bogged down so often bitching and complaining and wishing that life were easier, we would free up more space in our minds so we might actually enjoy (or embrace) life and some of its messiness and unease a bit more.

It’s a lot like that Seinfeld episode where George decides to be celibate for while his girlfriend (Louise) who has mono recuperates. . . .

[At Jerry’s apartment, George is sitting on couch, watching Jeopardy and playing with a Rubik’s cube while Jerry is talking to him.]

GEORGE: What is Tungsten or Wolfram?

ALEX TREBEK: We were looking for ‘What is Tungsten, or Wolfram’.

JERRY: Is this a repeat?

GEORGE: No, no, no. it’s just lately I’ve been thinking a lot clearer. Like this afternoon, (To television, “Jeopardy” is on) what is chicken Kiev, (Back to Jerry) I really enjoyed watching a documentary with Louise.

JERRY: Louise! That’s what’s doin’ it. You’re no longer pre-occupied with sex, so your mind is able to focus.

GEORGE: You think?

JERRY: Yeah. I mean, let’s say this is your brain. (Holds lettuce head) Okay, from what I know about you, your brain consists of two parts: the intellect, represented here (Pulls off tiny piece of lettuce), and the part obsessed with sex. (Shows whole lettuce head) Now granted, you have extracted an astonishing amount from this little scrap. But with no-sex-Louise, this previously useless lump, is now functioning for the first time in its existence. (Eats tiny piece of lettuce)

GEORGE: Oh my God. I just remembered where I left my retainer in second grade. I’ll see ya. (He throws finished Rubik’s cube to Jerry and he exits. Kramer enters)

So too it is with us. The space between our ears is for rent. And most of us unknowingly rent it out most of the time to what amounts to the lowest bidder—the path of least resistance, that part of us that wants life to be easy and simple and complains vocally whenever it isn’t. We live in an increasingly easier era where more and more things are being made easier, more convenient, more fun, et cetera. More and more of us are searching out ways to lose weight easier, to have more efficient and easier work-outs that will yield maximum results, to be able to eat more and more gluttonous sweet and or fatty foods without the consequences to our bodies.

So many of the things we take for granted—plumbing, refrigeration, microwaveable foods, drive-thrus, automobiles—were things that were unknown and even unimaginable to previous generations

And the dark side of it is that not only has all of this convenience and ease and abundance made life easier for us, but it likely has made us softer—another difficult idea to consider and accept.

“Wherever you look about you, in literature and in life, you see the celebrated names . . . the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railway, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought make spiritual existence systematically easier and easier. . . . You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as others, undertake to make something harder. . . . When all combine in every way to make everything easier and easier, there remains only one possible danger, namely, that the easiness might become . . . too great.” – Soren Kierkegaard, in “A Kierkegaard Anthology,” ed. Robert Bretall, pg. 194.

Yet as we begin to more and more accept that fundamentally life is not easy, things begin to shift inside for us. Instead of the part of our mind that is grateful, kind, loving, and that finds joy in life being relegated to a few tiny slivers of lettuce while the rest of the head is obsessed with assuming life to be easy and trying to make things less stressful and then spinning out and complaining whenever they aren’t, things begin to shift, the balance of power begins to shift within us. We begin to find our sanity. Life isn’t easy. We’ve been to see that we’ve been duped; we’ve been lied to; life was never supposed to be easy or simple or uncomplicated. And so the assumption that life ought to be easy no longer runs the show, is no longer our fundamental operating assumption and guiding thought. Instead more and more parts of our brain (more and more pieces of lettuce) are freed up to begin more deeply appreciating more of the little things in life that we’ve been missing and overlooking for so long because we’ve been mistakenly assuming that life was supposed to be easy!

Life is difficult. Write this a thousand times. Try repeating this to yourself a thousand times a day. Make this your new ground zero. Say it to yourself whenever the kids are trying your patience or your partner is getting on your last nerve. Life is difficult. Or “this too shall pass.”

In doing so—in realizing that life is difficult—it frees our minds up for more kairos (or vertical or soulful) moments of appreciation and wonder and gratitude.

The more we live expecting life to be easier than it is, the more we will miss these potential moments of real peace and perspective and grace.

“There is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be at every moment what they already are, without imposing upon themselves any efforts towards perfection—mere buoys that float on the waves. . . . The decisive matter is whether we attach [to] our life . . . a maximum or minimum of demands upon ourselves.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, “The Revolt of the Masses,” pg. 15.

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty, so that, when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But, if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.”– William James, “The Principles of Psychology,” Chapter 4, “Habit,” pg. 126.

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15 thoughts on “How to Become a Genius in Life (or: “Life Isn’t Hard Because You’re Doing It Wrong, Life Is Just Hard”)

  1. Pingback: How to Become a Genius in Life | What Is Real True Love?

  2. Great post, John. This is basically what I was thinking about in my post today, but you did it in an impressively more detailed way. Lots of thought provoking things to think about. Thanks!

    • Hello Sedone,

      Thanks for reading and for your kind words. As I just wrote in my response to Julie, for me, the idea that life fundamentally is not always supposed to be easy, that instead it’s often hard, painful, difficult, messy, complicated, that it isn’t always fun, that instead it more often than not requires work, effort, courage, grit, determination, perseverance, ingenuity, resolve, patience, thought, awareness, raising our level, represents a very profound paradigmatic shift. At so many levels, the notion that life isn’t supposed to be so hard, so much of a struggle has infiltrated us and duped us (most of us). But the wise ones have always tried to clue us in to how life really is. “It takes effort to become effortless” said Lao-Tzu. But we don’t want to put in the effort to become effortless. We want the effortlessness effortlessly. We gravitate naturally towards what is easy, fun, towards what comes naturally, easily. Effort scares us, makes us feel inadequate, highlights our weaknesses and deficiencies; and so most of us do what any weak organism does—we run, avoid, hide, turtle, armor ourselves up.

      How much more sublime and closer to life might our lives be if we opened our hearts and minds more when difficulties came instead of automatically armoring ourselves up? How much more fully might we be living if we dropped our walls and lived more out in the open?

      Sure, they’re would always be those who will try to take advantage of our openness and receptivity and goodness, but even in those situations, we’d be living. We spend—waste—so much time living what is not life, being half alive, living without passion. Kierkegaard remarked that life, if we’re really living it, is similar to be atop a horse and the horse suddenly being startled into full stride! There’s something to be said about trying to get ourselves more and more acclimated to living like that—to embracing more and more of the full catastrophe of life. There’s still a balance to be found between risk and reward, between playing it safe and sticking our necks out, but most of us live far too guardedly and only talk about living more daringly.

      Yet I suppose talking about it the first step. Talking often precedes doing; it can help to deepen resolve, to make what was unnatural and foreign seem much more natural and normal. If we let our brains swim in and marinate in an idea, then not acting in that way will eventually become foreign.

      Thanks again for reading and for your very nice comment, Sedone,

      Warmest regards,

      John

    • Hello Julie,

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. And my apologies for the belated reply.

      I’m very glad that the post was well-timed for you and provided a solid antidote to a party of pity for one. To me, what the topic of this post represents is a radical paradigmatic shift—a complete figure-ground reversal. Most of us go through life assuming that life is supposed to be easy—or that it out to be easier than it is—and in some cases we’re right—so many things have been made systematically easier that it seems like nothing is immune to being made easier—but—but—what if we flipped the script on this sort of thinking (that life is supposed to be easy, or at least easier than it is) and instead started trying to embrace life more and more as something that isn’t supposed to be easy? That way when life was easy, we’d be thankful, more appreciative, and when life was hard we’d be like, “so what?” because we’d already be considering hardship and struggle to be the norm.

      Instead, we tend to think/assume that life is supposed to be easy, and so when it is, we’re not very appreciative—instead we “expect” it—and when it isn’t we bitch, whine, complain, get depressed, et cetera.

      Seems kind of like an unfortunate way for people to go through life—whining and complaining and not being very appreciative. So reversing things seems like a much wiser way to go. In a way, it’s like preparing for the worst and being grateful every time things go well or not as badly as they could have gone. I think that accepting as our starting point that “life is difficult” has the wonderful potential for giving our basic attitude toward life a sound tuning-up. Instead of acting spoiled, we’d start acting like heroes & warriors, and we’d start embracing more and more difficulties as being bearers of our future strengths.

      Thanks again for the comment and for reading, Julie. Warmest regards,

      John

      • Hi John. Thanks for your response. I think your reversal concept is brilliant. My life is finally working because I now live with more of what you´re talking about here, with perhaps a bit of twist. I see it like this: Life is cool, especially when it is lived on purpose. But be ready at all times for the punches, both internal and external, and continue to condition yourself and be open to growth. You really have a powerful handle on this. I want to ask you for a favor. Could you turn what you responded to me into a sort of short post? I would really love to share these thoughts and concepts of your in both my blogs. I think they could be very enriching and serve well to help break up confusion, suffering and frustration.

      • I’d be honored to, Julie. (And hopefully it will take me less than two weeks to do so! lol 🙂 And I don’t know how short the post will be—I tend to go on and on and on and like to turn over this bit of an idea and explore it, and then this aspect of it, etc.)

        As I wrote in one of my other responses on this thread, writing about difficulty (that life IS difficult), thinking about it, talking about it, is so important, because it begins making the concept (or that idea or point of view) less foreign to us. We spend so much time in the easy—going automatically for what is easy—microwaving food, drive-thrus, parking close to the store, taking the elevator or escalator, cliff’s notes, refrigeration, plumbing—we groom ourselves a thousand times a day–we reinforce the idea a thousand times a day—that life is—or can be—easy and painless and fun—if we want it to be or if we just look around for alternatives. And so spending time reading about difficulty (or reading dense things that are full of wisdom but not dummied-down and easy to read–books that spark our thoughts, that make us put down whatever we’re reading every few sentences or paragraphs so that we can really reflect on what’s being presented and sort through and explore our own thoughts on it), thinking about difficulty, talking about it, helps us to begin balancing out the scales a bit, seeing the other side of things (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), preparing the inner soil for a figure-ground reversal, preparing the mind for a paradigmatic shift. The idea that life is unavoidably difficult is something that many of us who aren’t living in war, famine, poverty, epidemics, have forgotten, have never had to really consider.

        It’s an idea (the idea that life may in fact be difficult) that meets up with a lot of resistance, because the evidence is all around us that life can be made easier, and that things don’t have to be hard. But the downside of that idea—that life can almost always be made easier, more fun, et cetera—is what it does to us as human beings!—It tends to make us spoiled, ungrateful, avoidant, bitchy, unhappy (whenever life isn’t made easier); it makes us weak; it tends to ruin or atrophy our character muscles and our consciences—if something is hard then it must be wrong, there must be an easier way. We begin thinking that love and relationships are supposed to be easy, that conversations and disagreements are supposed to be easy. When love gets difficult, we begin fantasizing about an easier and more romantic relationship elsewhere with someone new. When we expect or assume or live as though life can always be made easier, then the grass always begins looking greener elsewhere, and the grass beneath—that could be pretty darn green with some work, effort, love, investment—starts to become brown and withered and wilty and patchy because of our apathy, daydreaming, avoidance, laziness, excessive want of ease and comfort and fun, et cetera.

        All things to think about to be sure!

        And in the meantime, f you have any parts of what I’ve written here or elsewhere that you’d like to edit, adapt, rework, abridge, etc, and weave into the post you’d like to see, please feel free to. It’s been said that one of the reasons we write is because we haven’t yet come across elsewhere what we’d like to read. And I am more than guilty of that—whenever I read, I often tend to rewrite and edit (or expand) something into that way I’d like to have read it.

        Thanks again for your comment, Julie!

        Kindest regards,

        John

  3. Hello John, loved this post…I´m thinking of writing somewhat the same topic….you did it exquisitely & you are right, we should change our always-looking-for-the-easy-way-out frame of mind so we can fully appreciate the wonderful things life brings us in an unexpected way…Bravo!!

    • Hello Melissa,

      How are you? Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment and for the very kind words 🙂

      As I wrote in the two responses above (to Sedone and to Julie), it’s such a light-bulb type experience to have if/when we finally get it that life isn’t easy! Whoda thunk it?? But as Peck wrote in “The Road Less Traveled”—paraphrasing, life paradoxically becomes a bit easier (and less frustrating) and we tend to be less whiny and grumpy and angry and ornery, once we “get it” that many of the difficulties in life are unavoidable—that even if we had somehow avoided one particular difficulty, another one would have found us.

      And besides, what would become of us if we didn’t have to struggle and wrestle with difficulties and life’s immensities? We’d never grow into who and what we’re capable of becoming. It’s a lot like exercising and watching what we eat. If we don’t exercise much and we eat junk food and fatty foods, the consequences are inescapable and not negotiable—we lose fitness—we get soft, flabby, we atrophy, we have less energy, our arteries get clogged, we gain weight. That’s the physical price for a life of too much comfort and ease (and comfort food).

      But when we voluntarily try to get in shape, we become more mindful about what we eat (paradoxically we become a bit more cautious about what we eat; we don’t eat many “risky” or unhealthy foods, instead we close the door to those in order to open a door to something better), and we balance that by taking on the difficulty of exerting ourselves. We work out by adding the resistance of weights and that it turn makes us stronger.

      I’m not suggesting throwing caution to the wind, but I am suggesting thinking and reading and living more widely, and when life gets challenging and or difficult, trying to embrace the difficulty as a challenge. I love Rilke’s words on the subject—

      The Man Watching” – Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)

      I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
      so many dull days, on my windowpanes
      that a storm is coming,
      and I hear the far-off fields say things
      I can’t bear without a friend,
      I can’t love without a sister

      The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
      across the woods and across time,
      and the world looks as if it had no age:
      the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
      is seriousness and weight and eternity.

      What we choose to fight is so tiny!
      What fights us is so great!
      If only we would let ourselves be dominated
      as things do by some immense storm,
      we would become strong too, and not need names.

      When we win it’s with small things,
      and the triumph itself makes us small.
      What is extraordinary and eternal
      does not want to be bent by us.
      I mean the Angel who appeared
      to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
      when the wrestler’s sinews
      grew long like metal strings,
      he felt them under his fingers
      like chords of deep music.

      Whoever was beaten by this Angel
      (who often simply declined the fight)
      went away proud and strengthened
      and great from that harsh hand,
      that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
      Winning does not tempt that man.
      This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
      by constantly greater beings.

      Thanks again for reading and for your kind comment, Melissa, and my apologies for my belated response.

      Warmest regards,

      John

      • Thanks to you for your time to repond…BTW I love Rilke & his poems, I quote him often in my blog…I´ll share with you a quote that I think has to do with this: “Learning to look at ourselves the way we look at distant things—without favoritism, so much preference & self-serving bias (egoism/narcissism)—frees us to love better & more often, and to live with greater appreciation, gratitude & kindness”- Unknown….keep on passing the wisdom….cheers to you John 🙂

      • yeeeeeees jajaja…where does my mind go?….I read too much & my neurons are starting to take the heat…oh well feel flattered!!….;-)

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