I was sitting with a young father and he said, “I want my children to understand that when I go off to work, I am putting in a lot of effort to earn the resources to provide the life I want my family to have. I want them to know you have to work for what you get.” I was moved by the wisdom of his thoughtfulness of his children’s point of view and how he wanted to show them what they need to know to take care of themselves in the world. He was not expressing a need of his own to be recognized but a wish to prepare them for life in the real world as he understands it.
The world in general is in a constant state of entropy: things decay, deteriorate, and move into states of disorder. In contrast, life is a kind of force that uses energy to counter entropy. It generates creation, growth, and order. It is effort that allows for building, learning, and growth. As a culture, we create for ourselves a conflict between a wish to design ever more sophisticated means of saving labor or making things easy and the understanding that genuine accomplishment requires work. We would like to get lucky and enjoy gains without investing the work to earn them. At the same time, we know not only that there is a cost to everything, but that earning something through our own work and competence is far more satisfying than having it handed to us.
When we invest our effort in something that is important to us, we develop ourselves even while we are trying to achieve some other outcome. We gain experience and skill, and we build our internal capacity to tolerate struggle. Just in the way that muscles can only be built through using them in a way that requires effort, all the systems within ourselves respond to our using them. We forget the benefit and pleasure of working hard and accomplishing something difficult, and so we seek easier ways to get what we want.
Sometimes it seems that other people do not have to make as much effort, and their lives are easier. This is often because effort is invisible, but its results are not. We do not see the hours and hours an athlete has spent to develop his skill before he is famous. We do not see the years of work and patience and learning that lie behind the success of public figures and artists. Genuine growth requires an input of effort. Research shows that a world class athlete has practiced about 10,000 hours in a focused and concentrated way in order to excel. We would like to spend 10 minutes a day and get the same results. We have an immature wish to get what we want with no effort, but our grown up mind knows that is not how the real world works.
We create ourselves through our choices and our activity. Our development as people is a result of each moment of decision and each ounce of effort. These small increments accumulate over a lifetime to promote our growth in one direction or another. When we recognize the value of what we actually do, we can experience the deep satisfaction of having put our resources of time and energy into the people and activities that are important to us and we can recognize the constructive impact of our efforts.