Ken Goldstein: Why Do We Do Difficult Things?
Updated: May 25
I've been out on book tour for the launch of my new novel, From Nothing. At one of the early talks I began with a simple question: Why do we do difficult things?
I'm not talking about ordinary-difficult things like schlepping yourself to work every day or paying all your bills. I'm talking about really big stuff. Pick a career path. Marry someone. Divorce someone. Start a company. Write a book—without an advance check.
Why do we decide to tackle extraordinarily hard challenges? Why do we embark on the kinds of things that change our lives?
I’m going to give you the answer in just a few more carriage returns, but before I do, think about what your answer might be.
Why do you do exceptionally difficult things?
Is it for money?
Is it for status and ego?
Is it because someone else pressures you to do it?
I think those enticements can play a role, but I don't think it's why most of us do difficult things.
I think we do difficult things because we can’t not.
Try repeating that in your head. Read the words "Why do we do difficult things?" Then answer aloud: Because we can’t not.
If you're not alone, say it rather quietly under your breath, but do say it aloud. If you are alone, shout it from your gut.
Why do we difficult things?
Because we can't not.
Excellent, I think I heard you that time! You'll note the purposeful application of a solid double negative. Don't worry, the grammar police aren't coming for us, at least not this time.
I want this message to encode in your mind: Because we can’t not.
The topic of my book talk was why I choose to write for what amounts to the tiniest part of my income given the full span of hours invested. The question at hand was why I didn't spend more of my time on lucrative business projects instead of sitting alone in a room for half my waking hours banging out words without much promise of real financial upside no matter how well I write.
There are obstacles to book distribution at an enterprise scale that are beyond my ability to control. If I chose to write fiction solely for wealth creation, I would be repeatedly disappointed. I would like to be pleasantly surprised by financial reward largely because it meant more people would have read my stories, but I would be foolish to count on it.
To me, it doesn’t matter if I get paid a fortune or less than minimum wage. Most of the money I’ve made in my career was when I wasn’t thinking about money at all. The few times I was thinking primarily about money I made the least. Or none. I follow the path I can’t ignore. I do what I need to do, and the rewards follow or they don’t.
Why do we do difficult things? Because we can’t not.
I have learned that this applies to business, to art, and to human relationships. The principle is always the same.
Certainly money is a part of the equation. For some people, it’s a very big part of the equation. In my experience, when it’s most of the equation, you’ll see in front of you a very unhappy person—whether he has a lot or a little.
When the reason for doing things is unbalanced, most everything begins to go haywire. That actually happens to the main character in my new book, Victor Selo. He sees people going for the money and only the money. The world falls apart.
Why do I sit in front of this grimy keyboard pounding out sentences when I could be helping start or buy or sell another company?
I like money. I just decided I knew how much I needed, and what I wasn’t willing to do in search of more. I needed to return to who I was when my wife met me: a guy who made up goofy stuff and told it to other people (I borrow that line liberally from George Carlin). Minimum wage or a bestseller, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t not write. I want you to consider doing the same. I want you to do whatever it is that you cannot-not do. Ah, there's that double negative again! This author will go far.
Please do what you cannot-not do.
Why not stick with the easy stuff? Isn't it difficult enough to get through each day and week, pay the bills, avoid unnecessary conflict with your boss, co-workers, acquaintances, and family?
Yes, all of our routine tasks can be exhausting. It's easy to let them take over our lives. Here's what those debilitating punch lists obscure:
Time is precious. Time is perishable. Our lives are at last defined by how we play out the clock.
Self-definition is a choice. It happens to be a very hard choice. It takes place at those invisible forks in the road we too often only see in hindsight. When we force ourselves to look ahead, our choices become constructively active, not passive, even when ultimately deemed wrong.
The intrinsic rewards of courageously owning a cannot-not do agenda are unique to each of us. If we don't own that choice, it is made for us. Some people call that one of life's regrets. I think of it more as ignoring the call to unique opportunity. Why do we do difficult things? Because we can’t not.
Another way to go astray and release control of the clock is to lose faith in our honest self-awareness or pure acknowledgment of our true abilities. Remember, I am not talking about the things we might want to do. I am talking about the things we cannot-not do. Those two forces might align, but not always. Self-deception can cloud our best choices.
Here’s a confession: I was a theater student in college. I was also a philosophy student so it wasn’t a total waste of time and money. I had a very Russian acting teacher one semester, who took me aside and said in a thick accent, “You know what, Kenneth G, this acting, you know why I do it?”
Okay, she didn't say Kenneth G, that reference comes years later, but it kind of works in this context. Go with me.
“Because you’re good at it?” I answered her.
"That is beside the point," she replied in English that could have been Russian. "I do it because there is nothing else I can do and still be me. The difference is, I think there are other things you can do and still be you, so do that, and you will spare yourself a life of misery.”
I thought about it and said: “Is this a nice way of telling me I’m not good at acting?” She smiled and nodded with that Russian piercing insight. “You see, Kenneth G, you understand so well. Do something else that you cannot-not do. What we should do is what we must only do—because we can’t not.”
That’s when I knew I had to write.
What about you?
About the Author...
Ken Goldstein is the author of three books, This is Rage: A Novel of Silicon Valley and Other Madness; Endless Encores: Repeating Success through People, Products, and Profits; and From Nothing: A Novel of Technology, Bar Music, and Redemption, all published by The Story Plant.