Sorry I Forgot to Enjoy Myself, I Was Too Busy Eating Glass
The hard thing about constantly saying you’re doing hard things
Writers, as a group, tend to have a few annoying traits: the show-offy use of unnecessarily complex vocabulary, the constant dropping of literary references, the endless need for attention and validation. But by far the most irritating of them all is the relentless valorization of writing’s alleged difficulty.
Writers have been into that shit for centuries. Dorothy Parker kicked things off with her quip that “I hate writing, but I love having written”; Thomas Mann quickly followed with his infamous aphorism that “a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” In the internet era, memes have replaced bon mots, but the theme remains the same:
When I was a teenager, I ate this stuff up—I’ll cop to having regurgitated that Thomas Mann quote dozens of times. These memes survive in large part because they’re comforting to the wannabe: if all it takes to be a writer is to have at one point or another struggled to put a few words together, then you don’t actually have to do all that much writing to be one.
But of course, this whole idea is bullshit. Pretty much every writer I know, amateur or professional, finds writing to be easier than the average person finds it, because duh—that’s what having an aptitude for something means. Replace “writer” with any other avocation and that quote’s hollowness is obvious. Is a runner someone for whom running is more difficult than it is for other people? A surgeon one for whom surgery is more difficult? If pressed, I suspect these authors would agree: Thomas Mann was infamously self-serious, and Dorothy Parker was constantly drunk, and almost never said anything she actually meant.
Sure, writing something really good is hard in the same way producing great work of any kind is hard, but writing in general? It’s clearly not that hard, at least not for the subset of people who’ve specifically chosen to do it.
So why, then, do so many of them insist it is? To drop one of the unnecessary literary references I decried earlier, this is clearly a “doth protest too much” situation.
I can’t be alone in thinking there’s something just a little bit, well, embarrassing about devoting so much of one’s time and energy to something like writing. It feels almost too easy, too indulgent—a feeling I can only imagine would be magnified a hundredfold if this was how I actually made my living. And so we (perhaps subconsciously) counter these feelings of guilt by flooding the zone with endless nonsense about how difficult our chosen path is.
In fact, there’s usually an inverse relationship between how hard a job is and how much its practitioners complain about its difficulty. You don’t see ER doctors or coal miners tweeting memes about how hard their jobs are. Because who would they even need to convince?
There’s another often-annoying group I’m a part of where you see a version of this same dynamic emerge: startups.
Entrepreneurs, or at least a certain class of them, love to glorify how hard they’re working or how much they’re sacrificing. Elon Musk compared building a company to “eating glass” and bragged about sleeping on the factory floor; Reid Hoffman (in a quote I actually like!) said that starting a startup is like jumping off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down. Half the founders I’ve ever met have at one point or another quoted Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “man in the arena” speech, as if Roosevelt, our most pro-regulation, anti-corporate president, wouldn’t hate most of us were he alive today.
When this rhetoric first emerged, in the early-2000’s world where talking about your mental health wasn’t yet cool and a lot of founders were quietly miserable, it was probably helpful. My issue with it isn’t that it’s wrong, exactly; starting a company is hard. I’ll even begrudgingly confess that it does, on occasion, feel a little bit like eating glass. But these days, I suspect most of this discourse exacerbates the problems it seeks to solve.
For one thing, excess difficulty is sometimes a signal—one you might miss if you’ve internalized the idea that this is just the way things are supposed to be. Yes, it could just be that what you’re doing is really hard. But it could also be that you’re doing the wrong thing, or doing the right thing the wrong way, and if you spend too much time reminding yourself of the former, you might blind yourself to the latter.
I fell into this trap, at times, when I was a founder—telling myself that things were supposed to be hard instead of investigating what that difficulty was telling me. This dynamic can emerge in any domain: I have a friend who, having over-indexed on the idea that relationships take work, ended up in a series of bad relationships that were nothing but work.
It gets tempting, too, to associate difficulty with meaning. I’m convinced this is part of what’s behind the meme of even the most trivial startups pitching themselves as “changing the world”—if what you’re doing is so incredibly hard, it must also be important, otherwise what’s all that hard work even for? But the sad truth is that you can work incredibly hard, and suffer greatly, in the pursuit of an unimportant goal.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! 99% of all human activity is, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant. Running a business that makes something useful, that treats people honorably, and that marginally improves the lives of those it touches is a perfectly worthwhile way to spend your time. After all, most of the accomplishments of the modern world were built one marginal improvement at a time.
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But most importantly, all this suffering discourse ends up obscuring the fact that this stuff is supposed to be fun! (For all his talk of glass-eating, Elon clearly loves it, otherwise he wouldn’t be running three companies at once.) In fact, if it’s not fun for too long, something’s probably wrong. When I was a young founder, there were times when I felt almost guilty about having too much fun. I’d internalized all the messaging around how hard startups are to such a degree that the more I suffered, the more I thought I was proving to myself that I was doing the job “right.”
Now I believe the opposite is true: the more joy you take in your work, the better the output usually is. After all, the one thing that unites the highest performers across every field is that they all seem to be having a really good time.
There’s one more group I’ve been part of that’s famous for being annoying: theater kids. And having once been one, I can confidently say that they are, on average, far more irritating than founders or writers. But theater kids are annoying for the exact opposite reason: they appear to be having too much fun.
Even when I was one, I was annoyed by their exuberance. But these days, that’s the kind of annoyingness I aspire to. If this stuff wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t be doing it. It’s hard, but it’s not that hard. And if you ever see me claiming otherwise—or, God forbid, making memes to that effect—feel free to feed me some glass.
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