You’ve probably heard the term “growth mindset” before. Though the concept began with Dr. Carol Dweck’s work with children in schools, its impact has spread into all sectors: Dr. Dweck even penned a piece for Harvard Business Review on the topic!

Dr. Dweck’s concept focuses on the brain’s plasticity, or malleability, allowing us to encourage individuals to accept that they are not stuck with what they have—that they can strengthen their skills and abilities by stretching and exercising their own brains and patterns through simple effort. This shows up in a few phrases that are now frequently used by teachers and students in the school setting, from “I can grow my brain!” to “We do hard things.”

As humans, we seek ease. Even as business leaders, the vast majority of us don’t exactly rejoice when we encounter new “hard things” in our business, excited by yet another opportunity for growth; if anything, we crave the day when the processes and teamwork run so smoothly that we can simply sit back and let them do their thing. We “do hard things” as business leaders and owners because we have to – because we have goals to reach – and maybe, sometimes, because we want to.

What about you? Do you still seek out challenges and see the benefit in “doing hard things”? And, perhaps more importantly, when you do push yourself to do hard things—why are you doing them?

Building character

One of the recurring themes in the relationship between Bill Watterson’s mischievous Calvin and his father has to do with building character. Calvin’s dad exults in an unseasoned bowl of oatmeal after a long 6 am run in the sleet. He urges his son to shovel the walk by hand, join a softball team he has no interest in, and tough out everything from an unappetizing meal to a catastrophic camping trip, all in the name of building character. No matter how unpleasant, unnecessary, or apparently meaningless, he seems to say that hard work is always worth it, if only for the sake of building character. Perhaps that’s his own personal, rather austere version of a growth mindset at work?

Picture1-1Calvin, in turn, takes pleasure in calling his hardworking father at the office to remind him that while the grown-ups slave away at their desks, he’s happily spending his days goofing off. And in spite of his dad’s constant admonitions on the value of hard work for hard work’s sake, we readers see a look of wistful longing on his face more than once as he considers Calvin’s unrestrained, carefree hours of imaginative play.

As business leaders, it’s unlikely that you feel the urge to create additional, artificial challenges for yourself in the name of building character. Life, and business ownership, as it turns out, present more than enough “hard things” to increase your perseverance and problem-solving skills all on their own! But it’s also unlikely that you often find yourself able to capture that childhood feeling of play for play’s sake.

Doing hard things—for fun

There’s a balance that can be found somewhere between arbitrarily challenging character-building activities and aimless recreation.

Last year the Washington Post published a piece called “The brain loves a challenge. Here’s why.” The author posed this thought – Why do people pay good money for experiences like the sweaty scramble of rock climbing? When it’s obviously easier to do what is easy, why do people still climb mountains or solve crossword puzzles and call it “fun”? The basic takeaway of the article was that we as humans can learn to enjoy the journey, and often find effort itself to be its own reward.

Even the rascally Calvin exerts himself—to create the perfectly atrocious snowman parade, pull one over on his neighbor Susie, or play the best and most complex game of Calvinball yet. It is play, but it’s also effort.

As the concept of a growth mindset teaches us, we aren’t stuck with what we have. We can always grow, though sometimes we may not want to.

We may feel we’ve tackled enough challenges for one lifetime, and there’s nothing wrong with letting yourself sit in an easy place for a while once you’ve reached it! But from time to time, just consider: what could it add to your life right now to “do hard things” on purpose—for fun?

When did you last learn a new, technically unnecessary but joy-giving skill? For some, that could mean playing around in the kitchen and experimenting with a new recipe; attempting an entirely new hobby, from stained glass art to skateboarding; or tackling a new challenge like writing a book or running a marathon. You work hard every day. Let yourself find a way to play while stretching parts of your brain and soul that have gone uncultivated during your years spent tackling challenges because you had to. At least every now and then, allow yourself the luxury of doing hard things for fun.

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