Desirable Difficulty: Learning, Growth, and Change Require Effort

Most of us have a subtle (often unconscious) desire for life to be easy. Where every day is smooth sailing and everlasting happiness reigns.

But when we look a little closer, the merits of this don’t carry much weight. Just about everything that’s deeply meaningful and fulfilling in life takes effort.

  • Keeping your worldview the same is easy. But maintaining an open mind and integrating new ideas that challenge your beliefs takes effort.
  • Lounging around all day is easy. But cultivating robust energy by moving, exercising, eating well, getting great sleep, etc. takes effort.
  • Doing your own thing is easy. But putting yourself “out there” to proactively build new relationships—whether for friendship, romance, or business—takes effort.
  • Reading an article or watching a video is easy. But taking notes, actively recalling what you’ve learned, and moving your insights into tangible action takes effort.

I could go on…

Some of this challenge is human nature. Other elements are a result of our socialization.

But the moral of the story is the same: difficulty is a necessary ingredient for a fulfilling life.

No matter what we want—to learn new skills, build better relationships, be healthier, build a business, find a life partner, or make any positive impact on the world around us—it all takes effort. 

And effort isn’t easy.

Angela Duckworth talks about the link between effort and achievement in her great book Grit. She shares an elegantly simple equation which breaks down into two pieces:

  1. Talent * Effort = Skills
  2. Skills * Effort = Achievement

What I love about this equation is that effort shows up twice. First, there’s the effort we put into learning that builds our skills. And second, there’s the effort we put into creating, which leads to achievement/impact/results.

I’ll get back to why that’s so important in just a second…

Before that, I wanna make it clear that difficulty isn’t always a good thing. In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about the psychology of optimal experience. You know, that feeling of “flow”—where you seem to lose yourself in the task at hand. 

Flow shows up in the place where the level of our challenge meets the level of our skills.

  • When the challenge is too big for our skills, we slip into overwhelm.
  • But when the challenge is too small, we get bored.

Which brings me back to difficulty not being universally good. We can all face challenges that outmatch our skills.

But when that happens, we aren’t doomed to the paralysis of overwhelm. We merely need to redirect our efforts.

Instead of aiming our effort directly at the challenge—which may feel like spinning our wheels, or banging our head against a wall…we can channel our effort into building our skills. 

And in doing so, we can cultivate the strength needed to engage in that challenge head-on.


As we all know, there are a lot of challenges in the world that need conquering. We need you well-resourced, leaning into your growth, and committed to making a positive change.

The next time you find yourself subtly shying away from the difficulty of a challenge…remember this principle of desirable difficulty. Rub your hands together and say “bring it on!”

And if directly engaging in the challenge feels overwhelming, try focusing your effort on growing your skills. Build yourself into the version of you that’s needed to engage in a meaningful way. Just… don’t get stuck in the learning and never exercise the courage to get into action. 

Sending big hugs + high-fives your way.

Let’s do this,

More from Mindful Ambition

  1. Give Your Best Energy to Your Most Important Challenges
  2. Suffering = Pain * Resistance
  3. The 3 Disciplines of Mindful Performance (The E.A.T. Model)


  1. If you want to learn more about Flow here’s a link to the Optimize PhilosophersNote on the book.
  2. And…same for Grit by Angela Duckworth here.
  3. You can get access to those, 600+ others, and so many other incredible resources with a free 14-day Optimize membership. (Note: I work on Team Optimize. (But for what it’s worth, I was a lifetime member before joining the team.))
  4. More on why I love Optimize so much in this article: Optimize: My All-Time Favorite Resource for Self-Development.