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Pick Your Hard

| “Staying in shape is hard, but what else is hard? Being out of shape. Getting good grades is hard, but not as hard as getting mediocre grades– not by a long shot.”

You may be turned off from even thinking about setting goals that push you to become the best, because it might feel like life is already difficult, why make it harder by pushing yourself to perform better? 

Perhaps surprisingly, being average is also exhausting, just in a different way. Deciding to be willing to go through the journey of becoming great at something is difficult, but so is choosing to stay where you are now. 

And honestly? Elite performance is easier.

Don’t believe me? Tune in and discover for yourself:


  • Why “high-performance hard” is easier than “mediocre-performance hard”
  • Lesson you can learn from a 5-years old child playing the violin
  • How to identify if you’re performing at a mediocre level
  • A virtuous cycle to help you become a better performer in anything
  • How the Ivy League Challenge can help you get better grades and make a bigger impact in life

     And so much more.


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Welcome to the Ivy League Prep Academy podcast, where we help you make a meaningful impact in your communities and get accepted to your dream university. Becoming the person that Ivy League schools recruit is more enjoyable and meaningful than you ever imagined. Come find out why.

Okay, so this was written by a real person. Their identity doesn't matter. But some of you can relate to this immediately from personal experience.

Others try to put yourself in this person's shoes and really feel what this person is feeling. She said, you know what? Fat is hard. It's hard when you can't reach to tie your own shoes.

You can't cross your legs, or you're asked if you're pregnant and you're not. It's hard when you're judged for being overweight. It's hard when you don't like what you see in the mirror.

It's hard when you're out of breath after just one flight of stairs. Or it's hard when you can't find something nice to wear. Now, someone else wrote in, and I'll spare the details, but the conclusion was losing weight is hard.

So, yeah, we can probably all relate to that. I even have another message from someone who talked about how maintaining weight is really hard. And there's no need to go into all the detail on losing weight and maintaining weight.

We all can appreciate this. The point is, being overweight is hard. Losing weight is hard.

Maintaining weight is hard. So pick your hard. Now, sometimes we look at the highest performers and we think, wow, that is so hard.

That takes so much discipline, that takes so much effort, so much focus. Performing at the highest levels is hard. But I want to emphasize that, you know what? Mediocre performance is hard.

Mediocre performance is also hard. And we just need to pick our hard. In fact, I hope that after several minutes here, you'll agree with me that high performance or even the highest levels of performance is actually easier than mediocre performance.

Let me tell you about an experience I had just two days ago, practicing violin with my five year old son. Now, think about this. If you've never played the violin I hadn't before.

Well, I still don't. But I was not familiar with the violin until my five year old began taking lessons. And just I mean, this is a handful of the things that he has to pay attention to as a five year old.

So his left hand, he's holding the bow with his left hand. And each finger, each of his four fingers has a different position on the bow. The bow is held up between the thumb and the middle finger, and then the other three fingers provide support in different ways, but they need to be at different positions at different angles, and they're supporting the bow in different ways.

Then his angle, we're still on the left hand, the angle of his elbow has to be correct, and it changes based on which string he is playing of the four strings on the violin. And there are other things on the left hand, then his right hand. He's holding the violin with his right hand, he has to pay attention to his wrist at all times.

And the fingers that are pushing down on the strings to change the notes, the pitch, the thumb that needs to rest. On the other side, he needs to pay attention to that, of course, the angle of the violin and that plays into the position of his head and his jaw, and how he's holding the violin between his right hand and the side of his face or the jaw, and just how it rests on his shoulder. And all of that he has to pay attention to.

And we're not even getting into his eyes, focusing on what part of the bow and which part of the strings that he needs to pay attention to, his posture, everything from how far apart his feet are to the soft bend in his knees, et cetera, et cetera. And all of this, we haven't even begun to make music right? The angle of the bow against the strings, how much pressure to put on the strings, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There is a lot for a five year old to focus on.

And so I can appreciate when he loses focus and we're practicing and he's trying to do these drills and he loses focus. And a couple of days ago, he had a private lesson with his teacher who is 6000 miles away. Amazing that today we can communicate through video chat and he can even take violin lessons across the ocean with a teacher from across the ocean.

But here we are taking violin lessons and he loses focus, just like he does so frequently when he and I are practicing the violin. But I didn't have the expertise that his violin teacher has. And immediately she saw what was happening and she said, you know what? Let's stop and let's talk for a second because my son's name is Stockton.

She said, Stockton, you need to know that actually your brain is your greatest superpower. And your brain can help you in tremendous ways. If you focus, then all of this hard work that you're doing right now, if you are more focused, then you're going to learn to position yourself correctly and how to hold the bow and how to hold the violin, all of these things are going to become more natural for you.

They're going to become easier for you. However, if you don't use your superpower, if you don't focus your mind, you try to unfocus, you try to entertain yourself. You try to find ways to be silly during the lesson.

If you allow yourself to lose that focus, then your brain is no longer helping you to learn these things. And it's going to be much, much harder. In fact, you're going to take much more time to learn these skills than if you were focused.

And because you're taking a lot more time to learn the skills, guess what else is happening? It's not enjoyable to practice the violin because you're not progressing. And because you're not progressing, you're not enjoying this process. And so it's very, very difficult.

Right? Focused effort is where learning happens. And when learning happens, that's where growth begins. And when growth happens, then you start to experience mastery, right? Of course, when you're five years old, it's not mastery as in elite world class musicians, but mastery for a five year old, right? Mastery at his level.

And that mastery that he begins to experience motivates him. And so he becomes motivated by his practice, his progress. And that motivation, that progress that he feels that makes him want to practice more because he knows it's going to pay off.

And guess what? He's begun this virtuous cycle. And this virtuous cycle began through his focus, through his decision to become a better performer, to take his practice time seriously. Now, mediocre effort is still just as hard.

All of those things that I described, where to hold the violin, how to hold the violin, each of the different fingers having a different role, the left hand, the right hand, the eyes, the posture, the angle of your feet and your knees and everything else balance, all of that is still there. The requirements to make music from the violin are all still just the same. They're just as hard.

But there's no growth when you're just putting in mediocre effort, okay? Same person, capable of greatness, capable of mediocrity, capable of doing elite performance, capable of being average in their performance, same person, two equally possible outcomes. But when you choose mediocre effort, it's still just as hard. But there's no growth.

And because there's no growth, there's so much more frustration. And so while you're practicing, because it's hard, and because there's no growth, because there's frustration, what do you begin to think about? You focus on how much time you've been practicing, right? You focus on getting the exercise done so that you can cross it off your list, so you're done. And because you're focusing on getting it done, instead of putting effort into learning, you're focusing on accomplishing the task instead of learning the skill, you can't wait to finish and get out of it and just be done.

And then you dread violin practice the next day and the next day and the next day. And after a couple of months, you still haven't progressed very much, but you begin to dislike practicing the violin and it becomes harder and harder and harder. Okay? So focusing on your violin, using your superpower, using your brain to focus yourself, and choosing to pay attention to all of the things that allow you to be excellent, it's hard.

There's no question it's hard. But guess what? Mediocre effort is also hard. I think it's more hard and just seeing the difference in my son now that I have insisted that he focus better these last few days.

My goodness, what a change in his performance. And he's beginning to enjoy the violin significantly more compared to when he was trying to shift his focus away from those important things towards entertaining himself. Now, adults are the same way.

One thing that we can assume about an adult who performs at a mediocre level at work is that they're probably not engaged by their job. In fact, almost certainly we could even say they probably dislike their job. Some even hate their job.

And yes, that's a really strong word. So while they're working, quote, unquote, they're not focusing on the things that allow them to perform at a higher and higher level. They're focusing on what? Getting the tasks done so that they can be done, so that they can finish their work faster, so that they can distract themselves because they're not engaged.

That's where their focus is. Just like a five year old who's not focused on the fundamentals that allow him to perform better in violin. So since they're focusing on these things, they just can't wait to finish the day, can't wait to finish work.

They do as little as possible while they're working. They might even distract their colleagues, distract other people, and get them away from doing work as well. But when they finally are allowed to go home because they just can't wait, they watch the clock until it's time.

As soon as the clock strikes whatever hour they're allowed to leave, they go home and immediately escape into Netflix or social media or whatever else, right? And they escape because they feel like, man, I've had such a miserable day. I need to reward myself for working so hard. It was so difficult.

It was so hard. And then you begin watching Netflix or jump into whatever social media you enjoy. Now, these adults probably push themselves until they collapse from exhaustion because they worked so hard.

They deserve this break. And when you're watching Netflix and just get lost in social media, you have these dopamine hits and all the things that we've talked about so many times in the Ivy League challenge, right? You have these experiences that keep you awake, keep you stimulated, and you enjoy that stimulation after a day of work that provided no stimulation for you because you did not engage, because you've been in the habit of doing mediocre work. So now, finally, your brain's being stimulated, and you push yourself too far.

You don't go to bed at a reasonable hour because you deserve the break. You deserve to escape from your miserable work life, from your miserable day. And you push yourself until you are just exhausted.

You collapse from exhaustion. You fall asleep sometimes with social media open, fall asleep with the phone in your hand or whatever. And then what happens? The alarm clock goes off way before you've gotten enough sleep.

You wake up sleep deprived, and all day you're miserable. You hate your job all day long. You're miserable because you're sleep deprived and you're doing these hard tasks and you're not engaged and you're performing mediocre work.

And you keep doing this until you can finally escape at the end of the day and go home and dive back into Netflix or social media or whatever. So, yeah, being excellent at work, focusing and doing all the things that allow you to be the top performer or one of the top performers as an adult, it's hard. But you know what? Being mediocre at work is hard.

So pick your heart. And I would argue that being mediocre is harder. And you know what? I think you know where this is going, right? We've talked about five year olds.

We've talked about adults. Students are no different. Whether you're in 6th grade or 8th grade or you're about to graduate from high school, or even those of you who are listening in, getting ready for graduate school, and whatever level you're at as a student, it's the same way, right? You might look at the highest performing students and say, wow, that is so difficult.

How on earth do you perform at that level? That's so hard, that takes so much discipline. And you're right, it's hard, right? Being an elite student requires that you stay focused. You use your superpower, just like my five year old needs to use his superpower to stay focused while he's playing the violin.

And you need to stay organized, right? The things that we talked about in how to get top grades, an earlier podcast, you need to do those things. The things that we talk about in Pillar, one of the Ivy League Challenge, managing your time and managing your energy so that you can exercise, you can get enough sleep, you can eat. Right.

You plan recovery into your day, right? You allow your body to be in a position to support your mind and your ambitions, to give you the stamina that you need to perform at an elite level. Yes, that takes preparation, and yes, that takes conscious, intentional activity. It requires that you choose to be elite.

And it is hard either way. Whether you are elite or whether you are mediocre, you're going to be required to get all the assignments done. You're going to be taking the same tests even when you don't want to.

You're going to be turning in assignments, turning in papers when you don't want to. If you are part of the Ivy League challenge, your impact project, right? Making a difference within your sphere of influence, that really helps you stand out, that just brings passion and excitement and drive and everything else into your life and creates this story that is so compelling. When you apply to these top universities or when you apply to graduate school, if you're focusing on all of these things.

Yeah, it's difficult. And focusing on yourself and committing to become a high performer, it's hard. But for the exact same reasons.

Not focusing on yourself and studying at a mediocre level is hard too. You're going to just like the adults at school, you hate your assignments, you hate your subjects, you get annoyed by teachers, you wait till the last minute, you procrastinate. All of that is hard.

And that stress and that overwhelm, it's hard. So performing at an elite level as a student is hard. But not focusing yourself and studying at a mediocre level is even harder because remember, focused effort is where learning happens.

Focused effort is where growth happens. And when growth happens, that's when you start to experience mastery. And mastery motivates you, right? You begin to be motivated by your progress and that makes it so that you want to perform at an even higher level.

You want to prepare for these exams because you know that it will pay off. You want to make your impact in your sphere of influence because you experience the joy and the engagement and the high level of performance. When you begin identifying problems and finding ways to solve those problems, you begin scaling that impact project and making the world an even better place.

This virtuous cycle continues to build on itself because you're motivated by the mastery that you're experiencing. And that mastery leads you to work harder and to focus on the pieces that make the biggest difference. And the pieces that make the biggest difference are the things that are hard.

But because you're motivated by it, you focus on it. And you do it because you know it's going to lead to a positive result. And that is why, my friends, excellent performance.

Whether you're five years old, whether you're 15 years old, or whether you're 50 years old or more elite performance is easier because it comes from focused effort, which is where the learning happens, which is where the growth happens, which is where you begin to experience mastery, which motivates you to progress more, motivates you to do the hard things even more. Right? It's easier because you're experiencing that virtuous cycle. It's easier than performing at a mediocre level where you still have to do the work, but you're just not engaged by it.

You're just not motivated by it. So yes, focused effort while you're playing the violin is hard. Unfocused effort while you're playing the violin is harder.

Becoming an elite performer as an adult in whatever job you're in is hard. Performing at a mediocre level at that same job is harder. Leaving your comfort zone is hard.

Staying stuck and mediocre is harder. Again, pick your hard. I challenge you to choose to be excellent.

Use your superpower and focus your effort on the things that matter. Focus your effort on the things that make you perform at the highest levels. As you do this, of course it will be difficult at first, but you will, as you stay consistent, you will break through and you'll experience the joy and the thrill of performing at an elite level.

And that virtuous cycle will continue to propel you forward. Go on and make your impact today, my friends.