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November 29, 2007

'The hard way is the best way, not because it is the best way, but because it is the hard way'


Want to know if you and I would get along?

There's one almost impossibly simple yet infallible test I rely on: it's never missed once selecting individuals with whom I've become great friends.

Read the headline above.

If it makes perfect sense to you, we're peas in a pod.

Full disclosure: I read the quotation in a letter from an Army veteran to the New York Times magazine, at least 15 years ago.

He said it was the advice his commanding officer during World War II gave him, and that it had served him well ever since.

I second that emotion.

November 29, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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How about that obvious corallary, work smart not hard; this seems to infer that with a little imagination and following proper procedures things will get done efficiently and effectively. Also, similar is the saying, get it right the first time everytime. Just thought I'd mention some other popular parallel dittis in case I probably missed them in some previous postings.

Posted by: Albert Sperling | Dec 2, 2007 11:31:45 PM

Strange - my father and John D. MacDonald were both coding officers on Guam...

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Nov 30, 2007 8:42:42 AM

"When given a choice between two things to do, everything else being equal, the harder one is generally the correct one."

I think this bespeaks a serious lack of imagination.

I mean, you have at any moment the option of removing all of your clothes, taking up a paring knife and running out of your house with the intention of killing the President of the United States of America.

Achieving this goal will be very hard indeed. So presumably it is also very correct indeed.

And, less outrageously, there are few tasks which cannot be made harder by doing them without proper preparation, without proper tools, with your eyes closed, in the rain... Are we to presume that anybody who chooses to change a lightbulb by using a ladder, rather than by jumping in the air and trying to grab the bulb, is misguided?

How about welding without a mask? That sure is a harder way to do it!

The original quotation, of course, is logically inconsistent and so, like many other logically inconsistent "pithy" sayings, has the superficial appearance of wisdom. Many wise things are not immediately apprehensible, so that which is not immediately apprehensible, when stated by someone whom we think may be wise, tends to have the semblance of wisdom.

But the original quotation doesn't even have the basic consistency of a Yogi Berra-ism. "A is B, not because it is B, but because it is A" barely even rises to the status of a koan. Like paradoxical religious "mysteries", it can be taken to mean everything or nothing.

You can find similar beauty and "wisdom" in a tree, but don't expect it to give you any sort of guide to action.

Posted by: Daniel Rutter | Nov 30, 2007 1:49:04 AM

oh I get it. It seems the story of my life. And I keep choosing it. It's visceral, not cerebral. And in spite of the fact that it's hard, it seems right. And utterly satisfying in a very non-American way somehow.

Posted by: Melinda Wellsandt | Nov 30, 2007 1:00:23 AM

Talk about serendipitous and synchronicitous -- I only an instant ago spoke on the phone with a friend who is working on a project, and was describing in great detail the intricacies of achieving a certain effect on something. I asked if there wasn't an easier way and she said, "Well, ultimately, the hard way IS the easy way."

Is that it?

Posted by: Flautist | Nov 29, 2007 6:15:17 PM

In John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee stories, his sometime sidekick, Meyer, says something like this: "When given a choice between two things to do, everything else being equal, the harder one is generally the correct one." That's not exact, but the best I can do without the books in front of me.

I always really liked that quote. It appears to me to be true in a lot of cases. I'm trying to teach it to my 9-year old. I'm not sure it means the same thing as your quote, but it's close.

Posted by: Alex | Nov 29, 2007 4:23:34 PM

I don't know that I understand that. And I don't know that I agree with it. If I wrote my own version of what I think that means, I'd go with "if anything is worth doing, it's worth doing well." My father taught me to never do anything half-assed, and it took. But the hard way, simply because it's the hard way, doesn't always prove to be the best way, or the way that yields the best results. I guess I could say, "figure out the best way, and if it is also the hardest way, do it the hardest way."

I remember, during my weekly flute lessons when I was a kid, how my teacher, an impeccable musician, always made me learn every possible fingering for a tricky passage, and never, EVER let me skip the warm-up at the beginning of the lesson. He'd always say if I could do it the hardest way then the easiest way would be a snap, and the easier way is sometimes the right way. No shortcuts; aim for perfection every time -- one of the most valuable things I ever learned. But, it's probabaly also important to pick carefully what you're going to expend energy doing things the hardest way on. Some things aren't that important. And some things just plain aren't worth it.

Posted by: Flautist | Nov 29, 2007 3:40:41 PM

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