Stephen Bosch

Stephen Bosch

When something is hard to do, it's a sign

12 Jul 2021- Stephen Bosch
2 min read

When we think about things that are hard, we should think about gradients.

A gradient is a difference in a scalar quantity across some other dimensions.

For example, if a quantity, say energy, is greater in one place than in another, the difference between those two places over the distance between them constitutes a gradient.

You can think of the gradient for a quantity as a change in height. Going from a smaller value to a larger value is “going uphill”; going from a larger value to a smaller value is “going downhill”.

When we perceive something as difficult, we are sensing the gradient. The harder something seems, the steeper the gradient is. When something seems hard, we are looking “upslope”. To do the thing that is difficult, we have to climb.

People and machines don’t naturally go up a gradient. We take the path of “least resistance”. When we’re biking, we’d rather coast downhill than pedal uphill. Or to keep a refrigerator cool when air surrounding it is warm, we have to feed it with electricity. We tend towards the lowest energy state, not the other way around (this is the system seeking thermodynamic equilibrium).

Going against the gradient is hard.

But the gradient is a useful clue. The presence of a gradient tells us that this path, against the gradient, is probably not a path many people are taking. Which means there is less competition here for those who decide to take it despite the higher cost.

Of course we have to be diligent and critical and examine the gradient closely. We should have good reason to believe that there is something valuable at the top of that gradient. Perhaps there are very good reasons to avoid going up this particular slope. But we should not dismiss it out of hand.

Change the gradient

If we decide to take the steep slope, then, like a grader that modifies the landscape, we should look for ways to turn what begins as a steep uphill climb into a downhill stroll.

Ask, “What qualities define this gradient?”

If you find yourself bucking discipline and routine, ask yourself why. What non-obvious default thinking is making this seem so hard? How can you reframe your thinking to change the gradient?

When something feels hard, ask:

  • “What’s on the other side of this?”
  • “Do I want what’s on the other side?”
  • “Why does this feel so hard?”
  • “What would have to be true for it not to feel so hard?”

In the answers to those questions lie your landscaping plans. ⊡