If it is easy it is meant to be – or is it?

The role of effort
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Over the years I have worked with a number of clients who had a variation on the belief: If it’s easy it’s meant to be. For many it follows that: If it’s hard it’s not meant to be.  Some people use ‘right for me’ instead of ‘meant to be’. While there is a subtle difference between the two, structurally they are the same.  

Given that no one of sound mind would do something that’s not right and not meant to be, people with these beliefs use how hard/easy something is as a determining factor in deciding what to do and how long to continue trying to do it.

There are a few things to note about these beliefs:

  • For a start, it is a process or means belief, rather than a product or ends belief.
  • Second, it involves a personal evaluation (or some form of scaling) of how hard/easy something is. According to what criteria? Over what period of time? Is there a single scale of hard-easy or does it depend on what is trying to be achieved?
  • Third, somethings are ‘right’ and ‘meant to be’ and others are not. This seems to involve another evaluation but this time by an (external) evaluator who knows what is morally right or how the universe should behave.
  • Fourth, there is a causal relationship, maybe even a law, between how easy/hard something is to achieve and the right-ness or meant-to-be-ness of it.

All this got me wondering: does the value of something achieved / produced / created depend on hard/easy it was to achieve / produce / create? For example, does the value of a University degree depend on whether the student worked hard or found it easy? Of course it does for some people. But does it have to? Very often, it seems to me, the outcome – what actually happens – can be evaluated independently from the means by which it occurred.

These kinds of beliefs get more interesting when you consider they often come with another pattern – the client not being as successful as they think they should be. From their own descriptions it seems they could be achieving much more and having easier and happier lives than they are currently experiencing. What does it mean that their lives are tough and not easy? Often they conclude that they are not doing it right or it’s not meant to be. So what do they do? (a) give up, (b) change track and try something they think will be easier – which must be what they are meant to be doing instead, or (c) attempt, unsuccessfully, to accept their low level of success. Whichever path they take, they end up achieving less than they are satisfied with – and the pattern perpetuates itself.

Often these clients disclose a hope that we have a magic wand/pill/technique that will take away the problem and leave them problem-free (i.e. that we will make it is easy). One client  revealed, “I was disappointed in the first session when you didn’t say everything was going to be all right”. That kind of child-like wish is not uncommon. Why wouldn’t everyone want a magic wand to swish away their troubles? The difference is in how people react when they face the knowledge that this is a fantasy that has little or no chance of happening.*

Usually there comes a point when the therapy gets tough, it becomes ‘hard’ or it’s not going the way ‘it should’. Then what do these clients do? Generally one of three things: (a) They do nothing, which means they are bound to take another spin round their pattern; (b) They stop coming – often returning one or more years later in exactly the same position as before; and sometimes (c) They realise that they are caught in a self-perpetuating pattern, and they resolve to do something about it – even if it’s difficult / hard / painful.

There is lots to be learned from such a pattern. First, it is related to an archetypical question that all humans have to find an answer to: What do you do when the world (reality/universe, etc) isn’t the way you would like (want/expect) it to be?

Secondly, when the evidence of your senses casts doubt on your beliefs, what do you do? John Kenneth Galbraith nailed it: “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” We find ways to rationalise the evidence so we can continue in much the same way as before.**

By contrast, those who have studied successful people universally note that perseverance and hard graft are key features of many successful poeple, and that failures and set backs lead to to renewed motivation. When the going gets tough the tough get going.

Deciding whether to continue to try to achieve something commonly involves, not how hard/easy it is, but other factors such as:

How important is it to you and others to continue?

What are the consequences of achieving or not achieving it?

While in Melbourne recently I was fortunate enough to hear Li Cunxin tell his story. You may know of Li through his autobiography or the film, Mao’s Last Dancer. Li was plucked from a starving Chinese family and trained to become one of the world’s top ballet dancers. He acknowledged that he had had a lot of good fortune in his life. He said he took advantage of those opportunities with hard work – very, very hard work. His talk was on the topic of ‘resilience’. He described how he overcame a number of major set backs: regularly not having enough food to eat; ballet training that verged on torture; not knowing for seven years whether anyone in his family was alive or dead; being kidnapped by the Chinese authorities when he sought asylum in the US; a potential career-ending injury which had him bedridden for three months; and so on.

What is clear from Li’s story is that at times his life was tough. He experienced self-doubt and lack of motivation. He felt alone, lost and incapable of moving. Li put 30% of his success down to talent and opportunity, and 70% to hard work.

What is significant about the If it’s easy it must be right belief is its self-sustaining nature. Once you commit to the belief, why would you question it? Isn’t it true that sometimes your life flowed and you’ve achieved things easily and felt good about that? Isn’t it also true that sometimes you’ve laboured too long, banging your head against a brick wall when it was obviously not the right thing to do?

The belief doesn’t allow contrary external evidence to challenge it. Cleverly, everything that happens can be engulfed and subsumed by the belief. Notice the difference with the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept that things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The last line recognises that discernment is required. Not based on how hard / easy something is (‘courage’ is only needed in tough circumstances), but on whether it is within my circle of influence.


* I’m not saying miracles don’t happen. I’m saying you can’t make them happen, and so the question becomes, even if you are waiting/hoping for a miracle, what are you going to do until the miracle happens?

** See our articles on cognitive dissonance and Self-deception for explanations of this oh-so-human behaviour.

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