The Hard Way

by schaefer on March 16, 2009 · 28 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood


“The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth is’…that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” -Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

In 1989, Wyoming native Mark Jenkins set out with three Americans and four Russians to become the first to bicycle all the way across Siberia, starting at the Pacific port town of Vladivostok and ending 7,500 miles later in Leningrad. Battling mud, wind, injuries, and sub-zero temperatures, the 5-month journey took them through hundreds of villages, an 800-mile swamp, the Ural mountains, and a culture permanently hardened by the savage taskmaster of communism. The trip planted the team in the Guinness Book of World Records, but what made it remarkable was not that it was long, but that it was hard — brutally, numbingly, painfully…hard.

We don’t come across that word too often when discussing heroes or success. Everything we long for is easy and instant. Without a shortcut to the end we often conclude that the journey isn’t worth the time and effort. We want everything neatly packaged and ready for immediate consumption — our food, our friends, even our faith. Our lives have come to resemble those of tourists — wanting the experience, but not wanting to stay long enough to risk experiencing the realities that come with permanence and commitment. In fact, “hard” has become more of a scarlet letter rather than a badge of honor. Let’s face it, the idea of spending years busting your butt at the same job or pursuing the same goal has become downright antiquated, a fool’s game.

Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Carnegie are finding their stories of long persistence quickly displaced by those of the flash-in-the-pan celebrity tabloid genre. Teenage phenoms, reality “stars,” 20-something internet billionaires, and people for whom success and its spoils came swift and early are the new cultural heroes and idols. With each new fresh-faced superstar, the idea of success as a secret formula to be unlocked rather than something to be worked for is slowly cemented into our brains.

“He or she is naturally gifted,” we proclaim, inwardly hoping that we too can find our own hidden talent or skill to make us famous, rich, or at least…noticed. The books and seminars that sell out most quickly are those that promise the easiest steps to a better life — the secrets that have been known for ages by the rich and famous, but somehow managed to escape your radar until this very moment.

This “easy” epidemic has reached every aspect of our culture from health to education to relationships. People don’t want to workout and eat healthy because it’s hard. No problem, according to the creators of 1,000 different diets promising a great body with little to no effort. As for expanding one’s knowledge, why waste time reading a whole book when you can get the gist from the Cliff Notes? And relationships? Well, working through marriages can be difficult, so “experts” have stepped in to hand you a Kleenex and pat your back as they tell you, “You deserve to be with someone who adores you for you, don’t feel bad about ending things and moving on to someone new who will better meet your needs.”

At some point it has become acceptable to avoid things because they’re hard. Success has become some sort of self-help scavenger hunt with all of us desperately wanting to find an easier way than just grinding it out, a magic solution to life’s equation waiting to be uncovered. We cut corners and call it “optimizing.” We take the path of least resistance and dress up our cowardice in the guise of efficiency. And in doing so, we’re killing ourselves, one life-hack at a time.

There’s nothing wrong with working smarter or making things more simple. There’s no reason to make something harder than it has to be. And I’m not suggesting we go back to plowing fields by hand or walking uphill both ways to work. The problem is that many of us have begun to think that if something is hard, it is automatically wrong and must be changed or substituted immediately. In the process we often fail to reach our real goals, substituting in ones that are more “realistic.” And more importantly, we rob our character of some much needed pruning. We’re missing out on a fundamental truth of manhood — doing things that are hard molds boys into men of strength and character.


In the recent blockbuster smash 300, audiences and critics were shell-shocked by the ripped and chiseled bodies of the actors and stuntmen involved. How did they get so jacked? Surely they were Hollywood-ized, right? Wrong, says Mark Twight, the man behind the regime that molded these actors and stunt men into Spartan warriors. Writing to the critics he responded curtly:

“It appears everyone has an opinion about ‘300‘ and how the actors and stunt crew achieved the level of fitness, and consequentially, appearance for the movie. I have read that it was all CGI, make-up, steroids, etc. However, no one has come right out and said, ‘those guys worked really hard and had the self-discipline to control what they put into their mouths.’”

In short, these guys got their stuff handed to them 10-12 hours a day, five days a week for four months. It wasn’t pretty and they didn’t get the usual, “Way to go buddy!” or “‘Atta boy!” after each set. Instead they were called losers and mocked for being fat. Not the kind of positive, feel-good, self-congratulation you would find most life-coach gurus promoting. It was brutal, it wasn’t fun, but it worked. It was hard…hellishly hard. Lead actor Gerard Butler summed up the experience saying, “Pretty much anything Mark Twight offered up was so difficult in the kind of way where you wish you had never been born – and even more than that, wished he had never been born.”

Absolutely nothing replaces hard work. No shortcuts, no 5 steps to success, no secrets. This may come either as a blessing or a curse depending on how one looks at it. But, what makes the hard way so important for men is not just the end result, but the character built along the way.

It may sound cliche, but the journey we take often matters much more than the destination. How we live our lives each hour, each day determines the type of men we will be in ten years. Knowing this, we should construct our lives to embrace difficult challenges which will mold our character into one of discipline and perseverance. In doing hard things on a daily basis we’re constantly training ourselves so that on other days, in other situations, we can remain solid.

The hard way may be scoffed at as old-fashioned, but it produces integrity and strength far more meaningful and concrete than any gold star along the way. This method of living produces men who remain faithful to their wives and children, decade after decade. Men who refuse to sacrifice their integrity for short-term results or gain. Men who at the end of the day are fulfilled with the fruit of their labor. Men who finish a marathon rather than simply starting a million sprints.

If we can develop in ourselves a certain zeal for the hard things in life we will reap the benefits for years to come. Not only victories won along the way and character developed, but a fulfilled life at the end of the day. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once put it:

“But I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.”

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Corey - Simple Marriage March 16, 2009 at 5:35 am

Great post. There needs to be more of this discussion about life and achievement taking hard work. Great lives and relationships all seem to include people willing to work hard. Thanks for pointing this out.

2 Greg M March 16, 2009 at 6:06 am

Cameron, this was an excellent post!

“We take the path of least resistance and dress up our cowardice in the guise of efficiency. ” What a way to some up where we have come (or fallen) as a society. Very well said indeed.

3 Tim March 16, 2009 at 6:48 am

great post, simply great. there is great benefit in looking at ourselves and our culture in the mirror of history.

4 Craig Earls March 16, 2009 at 7:13 am

Brilliant! The easy successes I have had in life have left me empty. The hardest fought losses left me fulfilled. The steepest mountains topped have left me exhilarated, and those memories are the ones I treasure.

5 The Plainsman March 16, 2009 at 8:29 am

This was much needed for me today as I am sorting through a couple tough times with April, my hardest month, looking on the horizon.

6 Jon Butcher March 16, 2009 at 9:33 am

Cam, wut up boi! Good post. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot recently, for 2 reasons. 1) Casual, the time before pilot training where Air Force officers work less than 10 hours a week for up to 4 months or so, has been unsatisfying for most officers. The guys that live for the drinking and partying get sick of it after about 2 months of non stop drinking. The guys that live for TV and video games felt the same. The officers who really enjoyed the time, made it productive. They continued to wake up early-ish and gave themselves something hard to do like workout or make furniture. 2) Been thinking about the wisdom in “when I am weak I am strong.” I’m starting to understand the paradox. When do you actually get stronger when you workout? When you workout until you are weak. When do you get strong character? When you are weak from the circumstances of life. Why does almost every religion fast? Becuase they are seeking weakness. How do you get smarter, study until you are mentally weak, etc. I’m not saying abuse ourselves/other people or give/recieve ridicule, etc. But desiring and intentionally creating situations so that we are weak, is where we find strength.

7 Joel March 16, 2009 at 9:38 am

Fantastic! I’ve been following the blog for a while just for this type if insight and inspiration.

I am entering the second phase of my “whip yer body into shape, you gooey piece of fluff” fitness regimen and have been cringing about how hard it’s been. Hard, but rewarding. My spirits drop when the dish of Italian bread gets passed by me and my co-workers dig into their carb-laden dishes. But when they talk about their “easy” stuff that’s not working and look at me and make a comment about the results they can see, I remember that the hard work is worth it.

This was just the piece of writing I needed today. Thank you!

8 Stephen Borchert March 16, 2009 at 9:52 am

Excellent! It is articles such as these which bring me back to Art of Manliness again and again.

9 Brad March 16, 2009 at 10:08 am

Absolutely, this is very convicting for me as I think about my job and how I provide for our family. Why is it we’re always looking for the quick buck? One of my wife’s favorite things to say is “Anything worth really doing is usually hard.” and that’s what makes it all worth it!

10 Cygnus March 16, 2009 at 11:30 am

” … the journey we take often matters much more than the destination.”


This is the best and most inspiring post in quite some time. Good work.

11 Rod Newbound, RN March 16, 2009 at 11:45 am

Nicely written.


Although my wife and I rented and enjoyed the movie 300, neither of us gave much thought to what the actors had to have endured to present this tale of heroes from the past.

I have a new-found respect for the movie.

12 Craig March 16, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Long time reader of your blog, but this is the first time I have commented on anything here. Fantastic article.

After reading it, I was so inspired to go out and do something. Achieve that long list of goals I have written down. It made me wonder what about this article got me so fired up so quickly. The best I can come up with is the fact that we have some sort of primal need to actually do these hard things.

A man actually wants or needs to accomplish hard tasks.

13 Sam March 16, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Great article! So true. I see myself wanting to take the easy route so many times, and I’ve started making myself do hard things just for the character it builds. Thanks for the great reminder.

14 Tim March 16, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Excellent post. It’s time we stopped patting one another on the back for doing nothing in particular. Hard work really needs to make a comeback.

15 MG March 16, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Few things:
1. Nice title… “The Hard Way” is Mark Jenkins website as well.
2. Go check check out That man is hard.
3. Then go do a workout or two from You might tear up (or throw up ’cause they are tough).
4. Go read about (then) SrA Zachary Rhyner– the most recent AF Cross winner– he was less than a year out of training when he saved the lives of many Army Special Forces and a fellow Combat Controller

I’ve learned over the last year that yes, there are no short cuts to hard work. It’s what a man does in his darkest hour that will bring to light his preparation.

Good post.. good thoughts.

16 Aaron Stern March 16, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Love it Cameron! Well said. We live in a culture that says do only what you want when you want to and yet we wonder why marriages are falling apart at such an alarming rate and things don’t come together personally. It takes work, hard work to have a great marriage! And it takes hard work to grow as a man! Things that grow too quickly should be questioned – genetically engineered corn and cancer are a couple! Slow, steady, push through the bordom work produces a great and fruitful crop. Much love my friend.

17 Scott March 17, 2009 at 7:42 am

While I believe that this article was written with good intentions, I think that it has a few things backwards.

First, this does not sound like the United States that I live in. We work longer hours than any industrialized country in the world and take fewer vacations. I see high levels of ambition everywhere, and I also see extraordinary accomplishments in sports and the arts.

Second, hard work is only useful or character-building within the right context. It is hard work in the service of a goal, hard work in a context that is filled with meaning, that ennobles. Hard work without meaning is drudgery — an experience that destroys the human soul.

In the examples given in the article, the references are to athlete/explorers, artists, and professional athletes. These are all highly meaning-laden, goal-oriented professions. While they certainly require high levels of endeavor and effort, this work is definitely in the service of something that is personally meaningful.

The success literature that I read says nothing about things being easy; rather, it emphasizes the importance of meaning and finding ways to access creativity. I personally believe that we, in some mysterious way, earn our creative insights through our efforts. Through perseverance we open ourselves up to those creative insights that transform everything and help us create a much better product or outcome then we ever imagined. I saw no mention of creativity in this piece.

Lastly, I am sorry to hear that the training coach for 300 went back to the old techniques of shame and humiliation. I thought that we had finally learned that a combination of increasingly challenging goals combined with the judicious use of positive reinforcement is the best way to help people do extraordinary things.

18 Cameron Schaefer March 17, 2009 at 9:16 am

@ Scott,

While I don’t disagree that most Americans work hard and are more productive than nearly any other country in the world, I think despite the long hours at the office the average American male has gotten soft. We see it in the rise of obesity, narcissism, and the unacceptably high amount of fatherless children. All of these things show an avoidance of discipline and an embrace of “whatever makes me feel good,” as the prime motivator of actions.

Second, I completely AGREE that hard work without any sort of goal or purpose is meaningless. You are spot on. I tried to make that distinction when I said,

“There’s nothing wrong with working smarter or making things more simple. There’s no reason to make something harder than it has to be. And I’m not suggesting we go back to plowing fields by hand or walking uphill both ways to work.”

Without purpose our efforts will eventually do much more damage than good.

Finally, I have to take issue with your belief that shame and humiliation are somehow archaic training tactics from which we’ve evolved. While this method certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, I think it’s actually more necessary now than ever before.

From birth, we are now constantly told that we are “special” and deserving of accolade regardless of effort or performance. While I understand that for young children there must be a good balance of positive and negative reinforcement, at some point there must be a reality check in every young person’s life. An Aha! moment where one realizes that the world is not fair, they are not the center of the universe and they’re going to have to work just as hard, if not harder than the rest of the world if they want to succeed.

While Twight may seem extreme to some, his tactics produce results because for most men they strip away the doing of dozens of years of lies. Lies to self and from others. Once substantial progress was made by the actors, I have no doubt Twight patted them on the back and said, “Great work today!” But that was not handed out for free, it was the earned the hard way.

19 Scott March 17, 2009 at 9:56 am

Cameron –

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment. If I may respond back….

One major problem that complicates any discussion of the United States (and which confronts us with a complex future) is that America has gone from a country that could be described as a bell curve to a country that is a double bell curve. That is, we have one part of the population that is doing very well, is very ambitious, hardworking, creative, educated, assertive, etc. The young people that I have met in this group strike me as extraordinary and they give me great hope for the future.

On the other hand, we have another significant portion of the population that is extremely dysfunctional and manifest many of the social ills that we are concened about. I think that the group in the middle is diminishing which is why we may need to clarify which “America” we are speaking about.

The impulsivity that you speak of has many origins — poverty is one of them.

I am glad that you agree that meaning comes first and that hard work serves meaning.

The shame and humiliation issue…

First of all, where are children told that they are special? I feel like this is some kind of urban legend. Having raised two children (20 and 17), been involved in youth sports, and being married to an educator, I have never seen this. Even if you did try it, the kids would not believe it anyway — they have a very keen sense of the pecking order.

A healthy self-love, which comes, in part, from the experience of being loved, is a great gift that can help see us through the dark times and give us the ability to persevere in the face of opposition. Narcissism is a pathological condition that is a defense or overcompensation against terrible feelings of defectiveness and self-criticism. That is why celebrities have so many problems — they do not have a healthy core filled with a positive sense of self.

Hopefully, Twight is just giving a “tough guy” narrative. In Baumrind’s work on parenting, she found that Authoritative, not Authoritarian, parents were the best. These parents were loving and affirming while also providing clear limits — they were not cruel and arbitrary and they were not laissez-faire.

In terms of actors who have often trained for years, in the face of adversity and poverty, to get where they are, Twight probably had an ideal group to work with – not weak-willed men with no backbone.

So, I believe in the power of hard work, but context is everything.

20 WOTN March 17, 2009 at 10:11 am

If you want to see Real Men that Don’t Quit. If you want to find someone to inspire others to greatness see this site:

21 Ryan March 17, 2009 at 11:33 am

Scott – I think you hit the nail on the head in your second post when you referred to “a double bell curve”. We hear plenty about lazy, government-dependent adults and video game crazed young adults/kids who have this sense of entitlement about them. But there are still plenty of honest, hard working Americans in all generations.

I would meet in the middle on the proper way to use discipline (whether it be coaching, parenting, etc). Different people respond well to different methods. Personally, I loved it when a coach would ride my tail to get me to work harder and I responded to that well. I still ride myself when I train. But I can see how that method would discourage many people, ultimately leading to quitting. It’s a challenge for coaches and parents to recognize the method to which the athlete or child best responds. The reality is that a one-size-fits-all answer is the easy way out. Maybe the harder approach works here, too.

22 MG March 17, 2009 at 6:52 pm

I think you ‘saw the light’ with the whole Mark Twight discussion… but I think you have to realize that Twight was training grown men- not children. And, these were ‘men on a mission’, not just ordinary men with the goal of busting their beer gut or something.

It wasn’t enough for one of the guys to get ripped… for the film to work, they ALL had to achieve the goal. Honestly I’m not a huge fan of Twight… but obviously what he did worked. He did what you see all military, and especially elite military units do: break down the individual and raise him up as a team player. This can be done through name calling, shame, humiliation… but you don’t break down guys, and find out who really wants to be there by simply handing out positive reinforcement. While positive reinforcement can be good, as Cam stated, for these men, it was earned… through extremely hard work.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t want Mark Twight to raise my daughter (if I had one)… but if you want to get a bunch of dudes together and get them ripped… what he does works.

23 Jenks March 19, 2009 at 2:39 pm

This is the ‘art of manliness’ distilled right down to the most important point.
As a society, we need to get over the idea that things need to happen quickly and with no effort required.
It’s not meant to be easy! The sense of achievement when you complete something that was emotionally, physically or mentally exhausting has no rival. To do this and have made the world even a slightly better place is the crowning glory…
Sincere thanks for reminding we men of this important truth.

24 Logan March 20, 2009 at 7:47 pm

just wanted to chime in and say I loved the article. This is why I read AOM religiously.

25 knit_tgz March 21, 2009 at 7:58 am

About the shame and humiliation issue: I agree that different people need different approaches. I respond very badly to shame and humiliation because that’s already how I work inside. I am a perfectionist. Example:

When I was learning to drive, my first instructor was of the opinion that all young people learning to drive needed to be humiliated in order to internalize that driving is a work of great responsability, that you could kill someone if you take it too lightly, and that no, you don’t drive as well as you think you do. I’m sure this worked great for the average 18-20 year old. But for me it was paralyzing. I am already too much aware that I do not drive well and that a mistake could be fatal. The result: I got so nervous that I failed 2 driving exams. After the second failed exam, I switched for a second instructor, a firm but encouraging one. You know, the type that gives you one or two select encouragements when you finally overcome some barrier you had. (keep saying that I am special and I deserve it and I’ll dismiss you as a blubbering idiot. And I’m a woman. I want words with meaning. One meant encouragement means more that 100 stupid feel-good things). He finally said to me on the day before my last exam: “I have seen you drive better than many people who have passed exams. You are not a good driver, and you will not be without years of practice. And you know it. But you are good enough and responsible enough to get a license, more so than many others”. I did pass the third exam, with no mistakes.

This is the thing: pressure makes diamonds, but pressure breaks diamonds too. You have to know who you’re dealing with.

26 Jay March 23, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Love the site and love every inch of this article, except perhaps this:

And relationships? Well, working through marriages can be difficult, so “experts” have stepped in to hand you a Kleenex and pat your back as they tell you, “You deserve to be with someone who adores you for you, don’t feel bad about ending things and moving on to someone new who will better meet your needs.”

Sometimes this is perfectly good advice. More and more I see people who just have no business being together. They have few or no shared interests, no real affection and it’s plainly obvious that they don’t enjoy each other’s company and are only hanging on so that they don’t have to be alone. I think telling these people that they should just suck it up and make the best of it because that’s what real men do is leading them astray from true happiness.

Other than that, great article, and a sorely needed one!

27 Matt March 29, 2009 at 11:56 am

I’m 21 my old man has taught me well, i use to be a chef and that was bloody hard work. I then lost my job, again that was hard. I then found a new job, but because its desk work its easy money for very little effort i feel i need a challenge, life isnt about what you attain its how you got there, if it was handed to you on a plate you don’t appreciateit. If its sort after and truly earned then its worth it, on now for my next challenge, what it is I dont know yet…………

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