Omar Shehata

Do what's hard

From Omar's notebook.

The last few weeks have been great. I think a big part of that is because I've been committing to a principle I call Do what's hard. This post is mainly advice for future Omar so I can remember to stick to this principle.

What does it mean to do what's hard?

Do things that scare you. Do things you don't think you're capable of. Do things that haven't been done before.

I've been feeling great because I've been playing Celeste, specifically the notoriously hard B sides πŸ—». What's really special to me about them is that in every one of those levels my first reaction was always: "You've got to be kidding me. There's no way I could possibly do this." But then I tried, once, a few dozen times, and made a little progress, until I eventually did it.

In every level after that, I still feel like I can't do it, like I've reached my limit. But I learned not to trust that feeling anymore, because I've been wrong so many times before (and in recent memory).

At the same time, I've been learning to drive πŸš—. It's taken me this long because I grew up in Egypt, one of the most dangerous places in the world to drive in, and I just didn't want to try.

I then moved to Ithaca where I kind of have to drive. It sounded impossible: you have to constantly check your mirrors, and also be aware of the size of your car, don't get too close to the shoulder. Oh no you're veering off to your other side, there's oncoming traffic! And pedestrians. And your blind spot! And oh no, you're going over the speed limit! But don't look at the speedometer, keep your eyes on the road!!! πŸ›‘πŸ›‘πŸ›‘

It felt impossible. I just couldn't do it. But you know what? I thought about Celeste. I felt that way before. It looked impossible, but I did it. I did the impossible, so maybe I can do it again. Same way: just try, get a little further. Focus on getting better at one thing at a time. Keep trying.

And now I'm not so scared of driving anymore!

It felt like I had just discovered a secret. So many things in the world feel impossibly hard to me, beyond what I could ever do. But now...I could just pick one, and do it! I started feeling the same way about my dayjob, about my personal projects, about my goals. Just leaping from one impossible thing to another.

Why do what's hard?

Don't just solve hard things that come in your way. Don't just be fearless when you encounter a hard problem. I want you to seek out hard things to do on purpose!

Why? First of all, it just feels amazing to see yourself doing things that are incredibly difficult (when you do finally get it). So do it because it's fun. It doesn't need to be useful, don't worry about if it's worth the time. It's worth it if you're enjoying yourself.

Second, it's addicting. Once you prove to yourself you can do the impossible, you want to do it again. You want to go further. Which is awesome because, third, this feeling spills into everything else in your life. Yeah I beat an impossibly hard video game, I can definitely figure out C++ templates (and I did!) πŸ‘¨β€πŸ’»

And fourth, it sets you apart. Doing what's hard is hard. There's greater barriers to entry. Which means there's fewer people doing it. This makes it easier to stand out, and find opportunities for more control and freedom in your life, which is one of the core values I seek.

How do you do what's hard?

You really have to believe that you can, because you can! You need to build up & maintain your confidence.

If you feel like you're going off the rails and falling into despair, scale it down. Do something less hard. Then work your way back up.

I've had a fear of doing hard things for most of my life. Most things that I did were not "hard". I got good gradesπŸŽ“, I made flash games, made money off those games, got into a good college.

Those things required a lot of effort, but what I mean by "hard" here is this feeling you get when you're stuck. It's very uncomfortable πŸ˜–. You don't know what to do. You're trying, but it's not just happening!

I encountered this feeling a lot, and was very good at avoiding it. Trying to create an effect in my game, can't find a tutorial telling me how to do it? Just fake it, or redesign the game so I don't need it (I felt very clever!)

Trying to learn to draw? 🎨 I put pen to paper but whatever I did, it looked terrible. So I just gave up and collaborated with artists who could take care of that!

Trying to solve interview-style algorithm puzzles? 🧩 I just couldn't come up with the answer on my own. I couldn't do it. I just decided to build up an impressive portfolio instead!

This changed when I took Abstract Algebra βž— in college. There were no shortcuts. I couldn't just look up the answer, learn the technique, and apply it next time I see the problem. Every problem was new, and I had to somehow figure it out.

I remember talking to my professor about my dismay, and her giving me a few helpful hints, not about the problem itself, but about how to think about problems in general.

The moment I solved that problem, all by myself, with my own mind, changed my view of intelligence 🧠. All those people who were really smart and could solve those math challenges, they didn't have something I didn't. They weren't in fact just staring at the problem and frowning really hard and then the answer would just come. They had a whole mental toolbox for unsticking themselves πŸ› . And that was something I could learn as well.

I felt angry, actually. Why didn't anyone tell me you don't need to be naturally smart or gifted to solve hard problems? That there was in fact a meta process to get better at it? I was comparing myself to those people all my life and always feeling like I was falling short, because I couldn't see what it took to get to that point. To be able to look at a problem and fearlessly start making progress on it.

My second formative moment was when I read a piece in a math magazine that someone had left in a common area πŸ“°. It talked about the value of confidence in solving problems. I remember thinking "Pffft. Yeah you can pass a job interview by talking big, but, what, I'm supposed to charm a math problem??" But they were talking about how valuable it is to start with easier problems and build up, but NOT because you're going to necessarily re-use those same techniques.

It wasn't the answer that was valuable. It was both (1) proving to yourself that you can solve something you've never seen before, all by yourself and (2) practicing meta techniques for unsticking yourself, like writing down all relevant facts, but there's no one set of techniques that work for everyone, so you have to find and develop your own.

(2) is clearly important, but building up the mental resiliency of (1) is just as important. Because doing hard things is hard, it always will be, and you need to remember what it's like to get through that if you'll have any hope to get through it again.

This is part of the reason I like running so much. It feels very similar, as you start to experience the pain and discomfort, and you have to find ways push through that. It's way easier if you've seen your body do this run before.

I'd love to hear if any particular parts of this resonated with you! Especially if you have your own set of "how to do hard things" techniques, or if you've experienced similar formative moments that changed how you think about your abilities, intelligence, and what you're capable of.