By / In Engineering Daybook/ On
There are some things we do even though they are hard. We do them because we desire the reward that they promise. Work hard at your job to get that pay raise or promotion. Study hard to get a good grade on that test. With hard work and determination, the saying goes, you’ll reap the reward.
But there is a whole other set of things that you do because they are hard.
The very act of doing these things strengthens you in a way that’s desirable, or makes you stronger, or smarter, or raises your mood, or improves you in some way. Hard work makes you a better person.
I used to hate running. Running is hard. It hurts while you’re running, and then it hurts after you run because your muscles are sore. But I wanted to get in better shape, and I wanted to stay in good shape as I get older. Running isn’t a once-and-done thing. You don’t run for a while, reach some goal, and then sit back and reap the reward of your hard work. No, you keep running. And as you get stronger, running gets easier, and so you run longer, or faster to keep it hard.
Building habits is hard. To build a new habit (or break an old one) you have to discipline yourself to do (or not do) something every day until it becomes automatic. It can take weeks, or months, or years to indelibly print the new habit on your “forma de ser”—your way of being. The ability to form or break habits is itself a skill, and you don’t get it by giving up. You get the habit skill by doing it, and it works because it is hard.
Remembering things is hard. It’s hard because our brains form memories by creating new connections between neurons. These connections form pathways that light up when we remember something that we’ve learned. But our brains are very efficient: they don’t try to remember things that we don’t need, and so memories that aren’t used degrade and are thrown away by our brain’s built-in garbage collector. The way to remember something, to really remember it, is to struggle to recall it. Every time you struggle to recall someone’s name, or the height of Mount Everest, or the chemical formula for acetic acid, your brain works hard to find that pathway between those neurons. When that memory lights up it sends a signal to your brain that “this is important”. The harder you work to remember it, and the more frequently, the stronger the “this is important” signal becomes. The most important neural connections actually become physically covered with a coating of myelin, which acts like insulation on an electrical wire to protect that memory from being collected by the garbage collectors. Myelinated neural pathways actually increase the speed at which electrical signals are transmitted. So when you work to remember something the memory not only becomes stronger, you also get faster at remembering it. It’s the work itself that you put into remembering something that makes you remember it.
Sometimes the work is the reward.