Why go to the moon?
Why climb the highest mountain?
Why fly across the Atlantic?
Why does Rice play Texas?
That last question was ad-libbed into President Kennedy’s rousing September 1962 speech at Rice University.
Why does Rice play Texas?
At the time of this question, if we look at the previous 20 years of head-to-head matchups between the rival college football teams (Rice Owls vs. Texas Longhorns) from 1942 to 1962, the edge goes to Texas, but it’s close, 11 — 9.
After that fateful day, Texas has dominated the rivalry, trouncing Rice in the post-speech era from 1962 to 2023, 45–2.
A lesser-known, apolitical example of the Kennedy Effect.
The thing is, we all know why Rice plays Texas. Because they have to, they were told to. You know, league rules and all. But that answer isn’t very satisfactory — reminiscent of when we were toddlers and grownups tried to short-circuit our curiosity with this banality.
Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to do homework?
Why do I need to brush my teeth, go to bed early, or eat my vegetables?
Why should I be polite, kind to others, and have good manners?
Because you have to. Because those are the rules. Because I said so.
As adults, this mentality has psychologically left a mark on us. It has endured, so to speak. Like the specter of a past indiscretion, the residue of an old injury, or the glimmer of a logo burnt into an LED screen.
It’s there, but it’s not there.
It’s not there, but it’s there.
We do a lot of things because we think we have to. We do them because someone tells us or because it’s our “responsibility.” Yes, we also do things for pleasure, but even then, and more often than not, we do them out of exasperation, necessity, and coercion. We act out of fear of judgment, shame, and consequence. We do things because we think they’re “good” for us. We do them because everyone else does.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. This isn’t a reprimand from a pedestal but, in truth, an acrimonious recrimination of the whole damned world.
You, me, and everyone we know.
We’ve collectively missed the point of JFK’s perennial question. Sure, we went to the moon, allegedly. But why, for six bitter decades, has Rice kept playing Texas?
Why get up early? Why go to work? Why exercise or pray?
Why make a home? Why start a business? Why stay and not stray?
Why play a song or write a sonnet or heed Calliope’s call?
Why build machines, experiment, or investigate at all?
Why climb mountains? Why swim oceans? Why ski, surf, or sail?
Why try something over and over when you know you’re gonna fail?
Because it’s hard.
That’s fucking why.
We need to start doing things because they are hard. We don’t need another reason. The challenge is the reason.
Is it hard? Yes. Good, do it.
That’s why you should do it.
Difficulty is — at least it can be — the only thing necessary to make an action worth doing.
(I know what you’re thinking: the idea is full of irreconcilable contradictions. I know I’m being a smidge facetious and a shade reductive — maybe even a soupçon patronizing? — but indulge me, dear reader, if you would. Even if it’s hard.)
We live in a three-dimensional, time-space reality.
So when I say “do things,” I’m really referring to the gargantuan catalog of all actions.
Let’s smear a giant generalization over it all. From micro to macro. Fornication and gestulation to doing long division. Building a skyscraper and boiling noodles. From ‘mitosis’ to ‘movement’ to ‘mining,’ the point of every action is to get something done.
That might seem like circular reasoning, but devoid of the value we assign to results, an action’s fundamental, philosophical point is to fulfill a purpose—any purpose we give it. We take action to get a result.
Semantics aside, we can now focus on ontology and the two elements within the dynamic of action: the role and the result.
The role is what we do. The action itself is quantifiable in different ways. Things such as degree of difficulty, physical exertion, duration, and level of concentration are all examples of what we use to quantify how “hard” an action is based on the effort we put in.
Petting a dog, whistling a tune, scratching an itch? Easy.
Calculating celestial trajectories or conducting an orchestra? Hard.
The easier our role, the more we do it, and the likelier it becomes habit-forming.
Next, we have the result. What happened? Was the action successful in fulfilling its intended outcome? Was there anything to learn for next time?
If the point of an action is cursory and innocuous, we’re less invested in the result and don’t spend as much time analyzing our role. But if the action is, for example, cooking, working, or driving, the results have a higher value, and we tend to be more invested. We pay more attention and draw a more concrete connection between role and result.
It is precisely this dynamic between role and result that I’m talking about. This is where I think we’ve gone astray. We’ve come to believe that the formula for success is to have effective results from easy roles. The more we strain this relationship, that is to say — the more we find easy ways to do hard things — the more successful we’re perceived.
Convenience has become a virtue. We can do today with technology in a matter of seconds what would have taken, only twenty years ago, hours or days.
Today, it’s inconceivable for someone not to have a black mirror in their pockets. Capitalism says that’s progress. Life is made easy via the Internet of Things, creating more time to spend on what matters.
But what is that, exactly?
I’ve started to believe we’ve gotten a fundamental part of this whole thing wrong.
As existential beings, you (me, and everyone we know) will invariably, instinctively, and irrevocably react to the dynamic between role and result on two other levels: spiritual and unconscious.
At the unconscious level — think Limbic — the cultural value of convenience doesn’t register. Here, there is only rudimentary, ingrained, survival-based programming. And because everything is always about this, easy and superficial actions are perceived as less valuable to survival because, well, they are.
Spiritually, you deal with psychology, mental health, and socioeconomic well-being. Unlike the free market mentality, your spiritual gauge is concerned with worth, not value. When evaluating the dynamic of an action, it factors whether a positive result was earned.
In this sense, a desired result means fulfilling the purpose of the action and getting a sense of accomplishment in doing so.
There is a curious truth in considering all this. You could even call it a life hack.
Doing hard things fulfills a deep, existential need fundamental to long-term growth and evolution. Translation: it makes us feel good.
But everyone knows that already, right?
We know that there is profound satisfaction in achieving ambitious goals that are hard to reach.
So, what the hell am I talking about?
Imagine we realized this truth also applied to anything that is hard — including the good, the bad, and frankly, the absurd.
Doing hard things and completing hard tasks— no matter what — feel good. Try doing a 10,000-piece jigsaw of a wheatfield by yourself. Or run to work every day for a week. Or build a wall by hand, brick by brick, for no reason. How about making a paper mache Shinigami? Or standing on a beam for 12 hours without food or water? Those tasks, when completed, will feel good.
Don’t ask me why; the president said it.
Even if a vestige of this is true — and I believe it is — it would completely change our notions of laziness, hesitation, resistance to new things, or weariness to embark on hard tasks. We need to see the value in doing hard things because they are hard. Not only will it help us reap the benefits and feel good, but also release us from the persistent (illusory) belief that winners take shortcuts and suckers go the long way.
Actually, the more I think about it, the opposite seems to be true.
Doing hard things is fundamental to our well-being, happiness, and survival.
So next time, staring down the buffet of choices life throws your way, be more prudent in selecting your salad of experiences, and remember to throw in a hard task or three.
Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.