The Easy-Hard Principle: The Consequence of Choices

October 18, 2022

by Stephen T. Messenger

This week I visited the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy, an alternate high school program for 16- to 18-year-old students who have dropped out or are not advancing in a traditional setting. Cadets voluntarily join in a five-month commitment where they’re provided the tools to learn discipline, physical fitness, education, and leadership skills.

Amazingly, of the almost 180,000 cadets nationwide, over 60% earn their GED or high school diploma in this program, and many leave with college credit—a higher percentage at this Wisconsin program. I was invited to celebrate a lunch at their halfway point with these exceptional students and had the opportunity to hear their stories and how far they’ve come. It was inspirational.

At the same time, I had the chance to talk with them about good and bad consequences of choices. Making hard choices today leads to an easier path in the future.

The Easy-Hard Principle

Bill Bowerman, University of Oregon track and field coach, popularized the Easy-Hard Principle. He would alternate hard and easy workouts to allow his athletes rest. An exhausting workout benefits the body by breaking down the muscles. A subsequent rest day builds them back up, and the next challenging workout becomes easier.

To state it another way, doing hard things today leads to an easier future. I saw this concept illustrated on LinkedIn by Nathan Janson from Ramsey Solutions the day prior to my visit. Grabbing a napkin, I drew the first portion of the Easy-Hard Principle for the cadets.

These cadets are doing hard things that they have never done before. They sleep in group barracks. Wake-up is at 0500. Workouts are tough. They’re here because of struggles in education, and at the Challenge Academy, school and studying are mandatory. They’re making hard choices to perform every day.

Under it I drew an alternate timeline. Here, easy choices were made in the beginning, leading to a harder tomorrow. Bowerman would liken this to taking a week off from running and paying for it at the next hard practice.

I asked some of these cadets if they ever thought of quitting. Many said yes, but not a single one regretted staying. Moreover, the cadets talked about the few who walked out of the course. These youth took the easy choice to leave, and the lives they walked back into at home were certainly harder than the program they left.

The Crossroads

I next spoke about the few times in my personal life where I came to a crossroads and had to make a big decision. If I took Path A it would have led me in one direction. If I took Path B it would have completely changed my life’s trajectory and led me to another future.

My big decision in life was whether to join the military or not. It was a hard decision back then. The military was unknown, there was no prior service in my family, and I was taking a step of faith.

Who knows the path I would be on if I took an easier or different way, but this one has taken me on a journey of leadership, adventure, and camaraderie. The hard choice 25 years ago has led to an easier today.

Every single one of these cadets made a huge decision to attend the Challenge Academy. This life changing choice took them out of their previous lives of struggling at school and home for various reasons to a trajectory of graduation, college credit, maturity, and leadership.

This choice was a hard one. It was challenging to leave family, friends, and familiarity for a regimented regime. It’s a journey of faith into the unknown, and these cadets are creating a new future. Their hard choices are bearing great fruit in their lives.

Hard and Easy Decisions Today

Every day we all must make hard or easy decisions. We choose which projects to tackle, where to spend money, and how to treat others. It’s easy to procrastinate, waste money on “now” instead of “later,” and focus on us rather than those we lead.

However, the more effort we put in today, the easier tomorrow will be. This is very true in running, as Bill Bowerman understood. This is just as true in leadership.

Leaders look to the future and put in the work now. They make tough choices and challenge the team to perform today so that tomorrow will be easier. Finally, they know that effort yields results. They inspire others to work for the future as well.

The cadets in the Challenge Academy are exemplifying making hard choices to create an easier tomorrow. We can learn a lot from them.  

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