The hard thing about realizing it’s a hard thing

If you haven’t already picked up Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, you should. When I started to read Ben’s book, I thought that I already knew many of the things he would share, and that the payoff of reading the book would be learning about his particular struggle and viewpoint on startups. I was wrong. Full stop. Reading this book made me realize that when you’re working on a hard thing there are no easy answers and that you have to do everything you can to solve them. I knew these problems are hard – I’ve worked in startups before – but this realization was different.

Doing everything to solve a problem also means you don’t have the ability to solve every problem all of the time. You don’t have the ability to spend all of your time at work. And you don’t have all of your time available to be with your family. And you certainly don’t have time to be alone in your head not thinking about the problem. What you do have is the ability to work on the most important thing possible and to keep asking yourself at different points in the day, “Am I working on what’s most important?” Ben’s point is that you have to be brutally honest with yourself to know what’s important.

The meaning of important will change throughout the hour, day, week, and month. And the insight I gained from Ben’s book is that the most important thing isn’t always evident – it’s a combination of what you feel in your gut and the data that you gather – and you need to try very hard to stay true to that instinct. You won’t always be right, and it’s in fact guaranteed that you will make some mistakes. So what should you do when you realize you’re working on something hard?

You need to keep your body and brain going. That means that you need to eat right, get at least some exercise, and figure out when you can get sleep. When you’re working on a hard problem you often need to put in extra hours. If you put in extra hours every night you’ll run out of gas before you solve the problem. I’m not sure what works for you, but it helps me if those aren’t consecutive late nights. And family time? Yes, that’s important too. Turn off your phone. Turn off your laptop. Try your darndest to make some of your time real family time (no, not multitasking time, but actual family time.)

There are only so many hours in a day. If you want to spend your time solving hard problems, you will have to give up some of those hours to solve the problems. Make the hours you spend count. You’ll only know how hard the the problem was when you look back and see how high you climbed.

Try Reading Out Loud

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Every night when I am home (which is most nights), after dinner we read as a family. This isn’t a new tradition – my wife and I have read to each other out loud on car trips for years even before we had kids – and it’s a ritual that takes time. In an average book you can read a couple of chapters a night, which turns out to be 20 to 40 pages or so. Depending upon the print or your available time you might be limited to more like 25 pages. (Even when certain people ask you to read “just a few more pages, please.”)

When a book spans several hundred pages and you can only get through 100 pages in a week (or perhaps more if you manage to get together every night as a family), you spend more time with the characters than if you read to yourself. Favorite series stay alive for months at a time and the biggest problem we typically have is that we have a pile of books we’d like to read next, and we¬†can’t read them all at the same time. We need to negotiate as a family and compromise on a book or a series of books that sounds promising.

Reading stories over a long period of time and deciding what to do as a group are great skills for life. And listening is a great lesson to a kid (and to the parents) on the importance of presence. When we read, we all pay attention to the story. That means no phones, no other books (perhaps some doodling, as that stimulates the brain in different ways) and the person who’s reading gets to drive the pace. Sometimes I read, sometimes my wife reads, and sometimes the kids read. And we all listen as the stories unfold.

Stories are also a great vehicle to discuss other things that are going on in our lives. When we look through the lens of a particular character or discuss that character’s motivations when faced with a challenging situation, we’re also thinking, “what would I do if I were there? What would I do right now?” I often find myself having a mental conversation with a favorite character when I’m facing a new situation, as I imagine how the character might react.

In this age of always-on everything, what’s the point of reading out loud? Merely everything. Reading aloud forces you to pay attention to the story at hand. Reading aloud is great practice for conveying many different kinds of stories to a group. And reading aloud among family and friends is something you really can’t do online, at a concert, while playing video games, or while doing whatever it is that we do to content ourselves most of the time. Read and you open your mind to many new worlds. Read aloud, and you open yourself up to a shared experience that deepens over time, welcoming new and old characters into your life in interesting ways.

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