Bachata music plays loud in the room as the crowd watches intently, distractions suspended, fascinated. The result of years of sacrifice, training and hard work.
Her heart pounding fast, her muscles strained, and her muscle memory near their limit. Still, each twist, turn, and gesture is perfect, effortless, beautiful. She makes it look easy.
One more turn and on to the final pose. Pause. Applause. A big, genuine smile appears on her face, a smile that will remain for a long time. The testament to her struggle and her accomplishment. The root of her happiness.
When was the last time you worked hard to accomplish something truly challenging? Can you remember how it felt? If you do, I’m sure you agree it’s one of the greatest possible feelings. An emotion potent enough to motivate radical change and hours and hours of pain, for a big (or sometimes small) win. An emotion that has nothing to do with the shallow satisfaction from a few Instagram likes.
I don’t know what the purpose of life is, but I believe accomplishing difficult things must be part of it. It has to, or we wouldn’t have evolved to feel so good when we do.
Yet, a big part of our culture rejects struggle and effort in the name of mental health and wellbeing. As a reaction to the current epidemic of anxiety and depression, many have come to the conclusion that the best path to happiness is to eliminate expectations, avoid any kind of sacrifice, and to just stop trying.
Gained weight? No need for diet or exercise, embrace it and proudly show everyone. Feeling stressed? Don’t take action or look for the root cause, just start meditating or sign up for a Yoga studio. Unhappy with your relationship? You deserve better, they are not “the one”, just install a dating app and find someone new. Not enjoying your work? No need to try, just switch careers or start your own business, “be your own boss”.
Of course, this advice is very important and comes from sensible positions: It is a reaction against an outdated effort culture that was both unfair and unrealistic. It is true that effort is not always enough, and it is true that sometimes you need to accept failure, forgive yourself. But is this really true most of the time? Should we just stop trying?
From my teenage years and until my late twenties, I found comfort and pride in doing things that exceeded what others my age would do. I learned programming and created my first videogame at 12, started amateur game development teams at school and university, was finalist at one of the best well-known Spanish startup accelerators at 22, sold my first videogame at 24, led the programming of an award-winning game at 27…
This behavior was fueled by the constant and gratifying questioning by others - “How did you do that?”. I would answer with pride. My identity and life narrative revolved around it: I was the young, brilliant tech-genius that would build a wildly successful company before turning thirty.
And then I turned thirty. My narrative broke and my identity dissolved. Over the next few years, I became deeply depressed, anxious, and scared of failure. I lost a relationship and my hair. I gave up my curiosity for learning new things, and my strength to persist.
When I looked for solutions, both in literature and in therapy, I found comforting advice advocating for a simpler life where I don't demand so much of myself. No need for ambition, no need for struggle. Don’t compete, don’t try to win. Take a break, meditate, rest.
This period was necessary and helped me mature. It gave me time to grow a more extroverted, social personality. I became a more adult, balanced person. I met amazing people and enjoyed incredible experiences. But it led me into a huge mistake: I would take the safe path every time. I stopped trying.
These years brought an important transformation for the better but, first, they distanced me from that beautiful feeling and, second, they disconnected me from parts that I liked about my identity.
I truly saw this change as a necessary compromise, so I needed others to help me rediscover my lost ambition. Others who could still get obsessed. Others who would study, train, practice, and persist for months and years. People who could understand the value of accomplishing great, difficult things. People who you would want to ask: “How did you do that?”
It was refreshing to share time and experiences with individuals as ambitious as I was, or more, but that could take it with curiosity, excitement and joy. With the goal of discovering how far they can go and looking at others as inspiration for what is possible, not as a sign of how far behind they are. They helped me rediscover the value of accomplishing difficult things, from a healthy perspective.
Supported by these insights I feel now ready for competing again, against myself and, yes, against others. I am now equally excited by the things I am capable of, and by the necessary struggle inherent to them. I understand now: Only by accepting that I am not the best at everything, will I dare to be great at many things.
Now, if you ask me the question, “How did you do that?” I will respond with a kinder smile, not out of pride and arrogance. It will come out of recognition for my journey and with the desire to show you that, with some effort and persistence, you can do it too.