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We Can Do Hard Things

| April 20, 2021

by Beth Holtz

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Beth Holtz, Senior Manager for Strategic Initiatives and Administration in Research Computing, Princeton University.  She is a MOR alum.  Beth may be reached at [email protected].]
We can do hard things.  I must say this about 20 times a day, both in my head and out loud.  I say it to my kids, as well. So much so that my six year old daughter rolls her eyes and finishes the statement with me. The words adorn the wall of my office, they’re on my coffee mug and my phone case.  I consider it to be my superpower.  It gives me strength and energy. I’ve clung to it while dealing with so much that’s out of my control.
I had heard the affirmation said a couple of times but it wasn’t until reading “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle that the words sunk in and the power of them became both a motivator and a habit.  So often we put ourselves into boxes either from a societal perspective or even an organizational one that, by default, limits expectation of us and the easiest response is to doubt that action can be taken outside of those expectations.  I am ‘just’ a manager or I am ‘just’ one person. Not only can this thought justify stagnation, it can also absolve from the feeling you could have or should have done more.  In our day and age, we are expected to balance working from home with parenting our children through remote or limited school. All while living through an ongoing health crisis and experiencing political and social unrest. And personally, as a solo working mom, balancing all of this is beyond exhausting.  But it doesn’t mean that we are not capable of doing hard things. 
I haven’t had the luxury to hide from hard things (though I desperately tried). In September of 2019, I became a solo parent to two kids under five.  What followed was a rush of tough decisions: I sold two cars and bought a new one, sold my home and moved in with my parents in Virginia. I later closed on a new house back in New Jersey and moved in with my mother-in-law while managing many renovations, constantly changing school and child care arrangements, and adopting a puppy.  All while working full time and interviewing for a new role.  When I was offered that position, I took it without hesitation. Because I can do hard things.
If I would have been presented with any one of those challenges two years ago, I would have thrown my hands up and claimed that I couldn’t do it or didn’t want to. Now looking at what I have accomplished, it is clear that making a hard decision, even if it is the wrong decision, is still better than the strain left by indecision. Every one of the items on my list seemed daunting. But taking on each task, regardless of difficulty, led me to do the next right thing and before I knew it, I was on the other side. That feeling of accomplishment far outweighs the fear of failing. 
Today, my definition of a hard thing is significantly different than it was two years ago.
I have survived 100% of my hardest days. We all have. It’s an impressive statistic, and a pretty good reminder that we can do hard things.  Currently, besides adjusting to my new role at Princeton, my hard things are primarily focused on child care logistics or what to feed my picky eaters for the week – and it all counts. I have found that the big, obvious things aren’t always the hardest, but the confidence gained through big accomplishments helps lead you through the struggle that is the mound of small things. 
To keep me moving forward I have relied on these five tools that help me consistently do hard things.  I hope they are helpful to you too:
1. Music
I created an Amazon Music playlist.  It has my favorite songs with messages of strength and resilience.  Songs by Andra Day, Elton John, Queen, Fleetwood Mac and Florence + the Machine (among many others).  The lyrics lift my mood and I regain my mojo, finding the strength to send a difficult email or fold the endless piles of laundry. My favorite thing about it is hearing my daughter sing along and ask me about the meaning of the words. Watching her face as she registers her own strength energizes me to continue on my path.
2. What’s the worst that could happen?
Asking myself about the worst case scenario before acting allows me to imagine the darkest possible outcome and mitigate ongoing anxiety. From there I can quickly assess what the risk of that outcome occurring is and that leads me to a decision without stressing over every possible scenario.
3. Leverage coaches and mentors
Having people in your corner is crucial to growth and perspective.  I have been able to build a relationship with my MOR coach as well as two amazing peer coaches. They have challenged my default mindset and provided perspective that helped me realize my own potential.  I am also grateful for a relationship with my mentor at Princeton who provides advice, support, encouragement and is a constant beacon of strong leadership.  If you have the opportunity to build coaching or mentoring relationships, do it! They will add perspective and will stand with you as you do hard things.
4. Don’t forget to reflect
You don’t learn from doing, you learn from reflecting on what you have done.  Take the time to review what you have accomplished. Where did it go right?  What could have gone better?  After reflecting, add that accomplishment to your list of successes and move on.  Through reflection you will see your own growth, and many things that you used to consider hard are, in hindsight, really pretty simple.
5. Celebrate little victories out loud with others
Personally, I am forever proud when I make a hot meal and sit down with my kids to eat together on a weeknight. Seemingly small, but a huge accomplishment for me.  When this happens, I reach out to a group of friends on a text chain dedicated to celebrating our successes in adulting (to be fair, we share our failures, too).  Once we started acknowledging the smallest tasks were sometimes the hardest for us to achieve, we found unconditional support in a way that adds value without judgement. Celebrate your victories, both personal and professional, out loud with someone in your circle.  Maybe you are their motivation to do something hard, as well.
If you’d have asked me two years ago where I’d be today, I would have been 100% wrong. Two years ago, I didn’t think I was capable of making the level of decisions needed to get me where I am now. Two years ago, I relied heavily on fulfilling external expectations for my life rather than defining them from within. But as John Lennon says, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
Take the good with the bad and remind yourself that you can do hard things.  This reinforces what you are capable of, builds confidence, and enables you to live your best life. And if I can do it, so can you.  We can all do hard things.