Do Great Lives Require Hardship?


Walking with our thoughts

Suffering and adversity are bad things and should be avoided at all costs.  At least this is what any rational person would say.  No one goes out into the world asking themselves how to make their lives miserable.

But it’s hard to deny that overcoming hardship is often seen as a big inspiration for famous actors, writers and comedians.  For some reason, they credit their talents to the difficulties they went through.  But how much does hardship really matter?

Suffering and Creativity

One of my favorite writers is Edgar Allan Poe.  If you know anything about his life, you know he suffered more tragedies than any other human being really should have to endure.  To list just a few things, he was orphaned at the age of three, his foster father abused him and his first wife died at an early age.  His most famous work “The Raven” was sold for only $9.

Despite these tragedies (or because of them), Poe wrote many magnificent short stories and poems.  Many biographers give credit to the unfortunate events in his life as inspiration for what he wrote and you can see his tragedies reflected in his work.  Today he is often considered one of America’s greatest writers.

Of course, this doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have written anything of quality without going through such terrible experiences.  It’s difficult to say what he would have written if he never had suffered through such a long string of misfortune.  It’s quite possible that what he would have written would have been just as good and maybe even better.

Left-Handed Compliment

I know that Edgar Allan Poe is an extreme example.  Most people don’t have to go through as many bad things as he did.  Plus, for every person who has suffered as much as he has and done some amazing things, there are many others who had their lives collapse under the pressure.  Just because someone experiences Poe’s level of adversity does not guarantee any kind of success.

It seems as if the hardship itself isn’t what matters, but the ability to overcome it.  If the hardship is too difficult or troubling, the situation can drag you down into self-destruction.  But those who have the power to overcome their hardships build great life skills such as self-confidence and critical thinking.  These are qualities you can bring to other areas of your life, notably your ambitions.

One example of people who have used their challenges to great effect has been those who are left-handed.  About 90% of the people reading this are right-handed (I’m right-handed too) so they might not realize how challenging things can be for a left-hander.  From what I’ve been told, left-handed people describe their challenges mostly as nuisances or annoyances.

Many parts of the world are built with right-handed people in mind.  Many items such as notebooks, school desks and power tools require the user to be right-handed.  These are mostly minor difficulties, but still things that need to be overcome.  So does overcoming these obstacles actually lead to more success?

There is some evidence that they do.  Out of the last five US Presidents, three have been left-handed.  That number goes up to four if you include Ronald Reagan who might have been ambidextrous.  Taking into consideration that many of the people who ran against these presidents were also left-handed and it seems more than a coincidence.  If you need more proof, consider that 20% of Mensa members are left-handed.  Keep in mind that only 10% of the general population is left-handed.

Hardship Is a Good Thing?

According to a study done by the University of Buffalo, a little bit of adversity goes a long way.  They surveyed a group of almost 2400 people repeatedly for four years and asked them about their current well-being and exposure to adversity.  Surprisingly, those who reported more adversity and difficulties had better mental health and well-being than those who reported very little.

One of the reasons that adversity could make your life better comes from a simple fact of life: If you want to achieve anything difficult, you have to work hard to get where you want to be and deal with the setbacks along the way.  This is why so many musicians, actors and writers have such hardship before making it big.  It’s a part of the process.

Those who didn’t deal with any adversity likely stayed in their comfort zones and didn’t risk anything to make their lives better.  Hardship is one of the unfortunate consequences of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.  You can always avoid hardship by staying nice and comfortable with what you have, but you’ll probably miss out on what you want.

Avoiding all hardship and staying in your comfort zone might make sense to those who want to make their lives a little easier.  But all you’re really doing is denying your goals and ambitions.  This explains why those with the lowest adversity also reported low mental health and well-being.

What Doesn’t Kill You…

Enduring through a few years of hard times seems like a small price to pay in order to get where you want to be.  But this is where the true tragedy lies – at least for those who try to avoid adversity at all costs.  While the hardship itself can be seen as negative, the experiences and skills associated with overcoming them are very positive.

The good news is that you don’t need to suffer through all the anguish and tragedy that Edgar Allan Poe went through.  And even though he’ll always be remembered most for his amazing writing skill, I think it is his ability to overcome those events and channel them into his writing that impresses me most.
photo credit: Aeioux

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  1. Everyone goes through hardship every now and then. I think it’s the process on how we handle these hardships is what makes us different from each other and proves how strong we are.

    Every time I think that I can’t handle it anymore and that life seems to be unfair, I think that somewhere out there, somebody’s had it worse. This makes me bite my tongue and just endure the hardship.

    • I do the same thing when I have to handle hardship sometimes too. There’s always someone how has it worse than you. Sometimes you just need to remember that to put your own difficulties into perspective.

  2. I’m from Baltimore and I have went to a wedding reception at the church where Poe is buried. I also visited his home in West Baltimore even though it is is a “sketchy” neighborhood now.

    I have to agree that staying in our comfort zones promotes lack and atrophy in our lives. Life begins outside of our comfort zones.

    • I like the way you put that, “life begins outside of our comfort zone”. that’s a good way to look at it. I’ll have to make a mental note to visit Poe’s grave if I travel to Baltimore. I’m glad you got to see it.

  3. I don’t think we have to suffer all the time, but it often seems that when we do, we grow and challenge ourselves. I do believe that adversity can motivate us to do more and to do better. Those who don’t have much don’t seem to take risks and to me, that’s not a good thing.

    • I see it very similarly. Those who haven’t had to struggle to get where they are don’t seem to take as many risks. And you really can’t get many places without taking a few risks. It’s a part of growing and challenging yourself. Suffering all the time would be too much, but a little hardship can do some good.

  4. You are right about hardship. With the right attitude it can really make something magnificent.

    I fought cancer twice growing up and it has often been a source for courage and understanding as I’ve come to reflect on it in my writing.

    However, some people don’t understand the benefits of hardship and allow it to destroy them personally.

    Thanks for reflecting on the topic, I’m positive it will give many readers some amazing hope.

    • Battling with cancer alone needs tremendous will power and positivity, let alone you fought it twice! I believe behind every dark cloud lies a sliver lining and when one door closes, the other opens. All the best to you Bryce! I salute you for your fighting power. Thank you for sharing it with us.

      Perhaps Challenges and Adversity come in different forms to different people. But at the end of the day, the bigger these ‘forms’ are, the faster they unleash the power we have in us. For those who live comfortably for all their lives ; a smooth sailing journey, they are probably deprived from the chance to really discover what they have in them, and very easily, they might be lured into the trap of taking things for granted too. Nothing comes easy I believe, the harder something reaches us, the more we will cherrish them, don’t you think ? Like what David said : Bring on the tough times!!

      Thank you Steve for this post!! Really trigger some thoughts of mine and helped me learn more about Poe and left’handed. I’m also right handed, tried using the computer from a left-handed position, boy , it wasn’t easy. Even our taps that flush hot and cold water respectively are also designed more for the right-handed. Thank you once again, cheers!

      • Hey May, I’m glad you love the post. I can see how someone who doesn’t have to face challenges and adversity can take things for granted. If someting comes a little too easily we might not value it as much. Working harder to get something makes us appreciate it more. Plus, we never really get to push ourselves to see what we’re capable of.

        I think you have a good point on challenge and adversity coming in different forms to different people. I know there are some things that I didn’t have to work hard on that others have and vice-versa. What adversity and challenges you face might depend on the kind of person you are. That’s an interesting thought.

    • I’ve never had anything as serious as cancer before, but I can imagine that fighting it would be tough. I’m glad that you found a lot of courage from it. My wife is an oncology nurse so she has seen a lot of people face cancer before. It’s been difficult for her sometimes, but I think it has made her a stronger person. Having the right attitude really makes a huge difference.

  5. Interesting analysis Steve.

    In response to the question in your title though, I reckon I have a pretty great life and have not endured too much hardship (not much at all in fact) which makes me pretty lucky!

    Or were you going the ‘talent’ angle? If so, that’s for my critics to decide!

  6. It’s so true.
    -Many great things come from people who need to overcome adversity because if they stay put, they’re really done for.
    -If I stayed put and cried on and on about having another chance with my dream girl, then it wouldn’t change anything.
    -So that’s why I made a vision and blog to honor that mistake so that when someone else passes by, it doesn’t end up that way. Then add goodness to others on top of that too!

    -(I’ve always wanted to see someone use the Edgar Allen Poe example. Thanks for using it!)

    • I think you show just how important it is to face adversity and overcome it. Through your experiences, you started up a blog to help others. That sounds like a positive way to face your challenges.

      Oh, and I’m glad you like how I used Edgar Allen Poe for an example. I just love his writing.

  7. Great post! As someone who has gone through many difficulties in life, I see how they have made me resilient and self-reliant. Others I know who have had little troubles in life generally have low coping abilities. Nice to know my instinct has been proven true :)

    • I’d say your instinct has proven true too. I consider myself resiliant and self-reliant too and I got that through the difficulties I’ve faced in life too. It’s intersting that you say those who have faced little troubles in life have low coping abilities. I guess I haven’t thought much about that. If you or anyone has more thoughts on that topic, I’d love to hear it.

  8. I think this is a great topic, but I don’t know that great lives require adversity. Some people who spend their whole lives easily loving and taking care of their families consider their lives to be great. Other people who do nothing that is recognized by the masses as great are still educated, accomplished and happy without having to struggle. While adversity can strengthen some and crush others, I think other people can live through adversity and come out much the same on the other side.

    • It’s true that many people will have different lives that can vary widely depending on the person. However, it is hard to ignore the study that was done showing how adversity was linked to better mental health and well-being. There is a good indication that there is a causal link. That’s hard to ignore.

  9. I dunno. I feel like I’ve flown pretty straight, have followed through on my plans and by and large, everything has worked out the way I wanted it to. Only b/c I worked hard for it but I didn’t feel like I encountered adversity; just different challenges I needed to figure out how to overcome.

  10. Well then, bring on the tough times! :)

  11. You have to be extremely lucky to have a great live without any kind of hardship. I think that what makes people that suffered a little (or a lot) a tad mentally better is that they now can resist to things that most people still struggle with (since they have been there already). They know themselves better, and they know their defenses.

    • Using adversity as a way to know yourself better is an interesting idea. I think you make a great point. Sometimes the best way to get to know yourself is to see what you do in certain situtations. That’s especially true of hard difficult situations. Perhaps, one of the best benefits of adversity is in how it helps you get to know yourself. That’s something to think about.

  12. Steve,

    I acutally do think that great lives require adversity. I mean what is a live without challenges. How can you really define yourself without ever overcoming challenges. How can you determine what you are really made of. Now please don’t get me wrong if there was a way to sign up for a hardship free life I want in. I just don’t think that you can truly be great without adversity. I guess it the main fact is who determines what is a great life. Good question.

    • Challenge really can provide a great way to determine what you’re really made of. It’s the situations you face that can give you a good idea of who you are and what you’re capable of. And if you positively face those challenges, you can gain the confidence to face newer ones.

  13. caribtania says:

    Thanks! Just in time.


  14. I think this is interesting. It seems like you see a lot of hardship stories specifically with artists. And I like to think some sort of hardship helps build character. Those are always much more interesting stories.

    • I can see how they can build your character too. Overcoming adversity can build a lot of confidence in yourself. I also find those hardship stories interesting. That’s why I included the story about Poe. All his experiences influenced his writing so much. It just makes me wonder if he would have written so many great things if he had not had endured those downturns. That’s hard to say for sure.

  15. Hi,

    I believe that hard work is crucial for success. But that does not mean that we have to suffer. If what we are after is in line with our passion, hard work becomes a form of enjoyment as well. This is why it is crucial for us to discover ourselves and purpose in life. Only when we can recognize the talents and contributions we have can hard work become fun. Eventually success will follow.


    • Aligning hard work with passion does make things easier since you’re doing what you love. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy every minute of it. Hopefully you’ll have more joyous moments than downturns. But adversity will happen. Even someone working hard at their passion will have to eventually face down self-doubt and fear. But you’re right that working towards your passion is important to discovering a purpose in life. I think finding that would make the struggle worthwhile.

  16. Sir i think i m too content with whatever i have parents earn handsomely and i know that once they retire i would have to sustain myself on my own.but i think i willbe content with whatever small job that i get will.i should purposely go through the hardship of earning a small salary then i will come to about life and self motivate me for some bigger job.

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