“Simple” Doesn’t Mean “Easy”

I’m not sure what the hardest thing I’ve ever done is, but I could make a good case for weightlifting.

I can still remember my first failed squat set. It was my first time attempting 215 and the plan was to do three sets of five reps. The first set was difficult, but I got it done. On the second set, the second rep felt way heavier than a second rep should feel. The third rep felt as heavy as a typical final rep. The fourth rep was an uncomfortable grind. The fifth rep… never really happened.

I squatted down, tried to come back up, felt like I was pushing against a brick wall, and went back down to put the bar on the safety pins.

My coach, Adam, was not impressed.

“What happened on the last rep?” he asked me.

“I just couldn’t do it” I replied.

“How do you know you couldn’t do it?” he responded. “You didn’t even try. the bar was still going up at the exact instant you decided to reverse course and put it down.”

We came up with a plan to get me to give more effort than I knew I was capable of giving. If I got stuck on a lift, Adam would start counting out loud. Unless I felt pain or the bar started moving down as I was pushing up, I wasn’t allowed to abort the rep until he reached five Mississippi.

Next week I attempted 215 again… and got stuck again. This time Adam started counting. One Mississippi…he must be crazy, there’s no way I’m completing this rep. I’m not even sure I can keep the bar up until he reaches five. Two Mississippi…okay, push harder, push! Three Mississippi…I can’t believe how uncomfortable this is, there’s no way I’m going to make it. Four Mississippi…wait a second, is the bar going up? Five Mississippi…I did it, I can’t believe I did it.

Putting that bar on the rack was one of the most satisfying moments imaginable.

Simple, Not Easy

The fifth rep of a squat set is about as simple as it gets: Lower the bar down, lift it back up. In fact, it’s the exact same process you just completed successfully four times in a row.

It may be simple, but it isn’t easy.

There are physical and psychological barriers that make the fifth rep far more difficult than all the ones that came before it. Your muscles are tired and uncomfortable, your brain wants you to give up. To be successful, you need to beat the combined forces of gravity and your own self-imposed limitations.

Down and back up. A simple concept that’s difficult to execute.

Personal finance can be similar. One of the core contentions of this sight is that the core principles can be broken down in less than 10 words: Spend less than you earn and invest the difference. The problem is, these principles can be difficult to carry out in practice, both due to the physical limitations of our situation as well as our own psychology.

It’s simple to understand that housing is your biggest expense, but its difficult to keep that line item on your budget under control. Living below your means when it comes to housing is the best path towards a balanced budget, but most people want to buy every bit as much house as they can afford. Or worse, they buy more than they can afford and pass the bill to their future selves in the form of a bloated mortgage.

Making more money can be very simple as well, but it’s not easy. Any attempt to make more money, whether it’s landing a promotion, starting a side hustle, or launching a startup, will initially be beset with failures and setbacks.

Investing can be complex, but it can also be incredibly simple. Of course, parting with money that you could spend today to improve an as of right now hypothetical future is no easy task.

Voluntary Hardship

We live in a day and age where life is far too easy. We are insulated from the elements, fed more than we could ever need, moved about by combustion engines, and use glowing rectangles as our primary modes of entertainment.

We think that a good life is a life of ease, but what if we’re wrong? What if the good life is strenuous and effortful?

Not only do the benefits of health, wealth, and wisdom accrue to those who take the difficult path of pursuing them, but it’s entirely possible that the challenges overcome along the way are a major part of what makes life worth living in the first place.

The first time I completed a rep that took a full five seconds I felt alive.

What does it say about the state of my life that I don’t feel that every day?

This site exists to make the principles of personal finance as simple as possible so that you can build wealth, gain freedom, and solve your money problems. While I can do my best to make things simple, I can’t make anything easy.

If it were easy, everyone would be a billionaires with perfect abs.* How far you go in life is going to depend on your capacity for tackling voluntary hardship. Simple and difficult is the sweet spot.

* h/t to Derek Sivers for the phrase “billionaires with perfect abs.” The actual quote, from pg. 185 of Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans is: “If [more] information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”

Latest posts by Matthew (see all)