Joint Base Charleston


Why we do hard things

By Col. James Fontanella | 315th Airlift Wing commander | May 01, 2013

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. -- I recently read an article that cited a number of studies on the benefits of preschool. As the father of three school-aged children, it was interesting to me because it validated a number of beliefs that I had on the advantages of starting learning early in a young brain. What I didn't expect though, were the lessons and benefits that were shown to carry forward into adulthood, and the rewards of challenging ourselves over a lifetime.

In a nutshell, the preschool studies that began in the early 1970s reversed the previous thinking that infants and toddlers needed nothing more than their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter to be met for them to thrive. The experiments were carried out over years, and then followed for literally decades later. They proved that youngsters who were exposed to social settings and given the challenges of building with blocks or finger-painting reaped measurable rewards later in their school years and adult lives. The metrics evaluated performance in high school, post-secondary education completion, job placement and even IQ. Significantly and undeniably, these early studies proved a positive correlation between preschool attendance and all of the measures of success later in school. What was more astonishing, however, was the added quality of life that was garnered by the experimental group - to the tune of appreciably reduced arrest records, drug use, teenage pregnancy, poverty and welfare rates, and increased employment rates, income levels, home ownership and socioeconomic status. All from playing with trucks and dolls! Why?

The studies proved that a child's brain grows and develops in complexity as it is stimulated and put to work. What looks like fun to an adult, like playing with blocks or doing a puzzle, is demanding labor to a toddler. Because it is a challenge, it is good for them and literally pays them (and society) back over the decades of his lifetime.

As adults, we choose to do hard things and they are still good for us, whether we make that choice consciously or unconsciously. In our personal lives, we voluntarily engage in tests that may have very little tangible rewards, although they come with some obvious degree of satisfaction - running marathons, climbing mountains, fishing for the "big one." You may have opinions when you see a "26.2" or "140.6" bumper sticker, but trust that the owner acknowledges that he or she accepted a challenge and overcame it. I even like the "1.5" sticker, but that's a topic for another article.

The personal growth and long term benefits of doing hard things are constant among humans. The examples are nearly unlimited: reading to our kids, a long session at the gym, picking up a book instead of watching television, and working on a graduate degree, etc. Sometimes, we know why they are good for us and sometimes we don't.

When you were a kid, did you ever have a parent tell you, "it builds character!" if you were prone to gripe about doing something hard? They were probably more correct than they realized.

In the Air Force, we excel in doing hard things. Whether it's vying for the next skill-level progression and potential promotion, or maximizing work center production and training in a given week, it is in our ethos to challenge ourselves. We launched 13 C-17s in six minutes from Joint Base Charleston - Air Base a few weeks ago and made it look easy. Fixing and flying airplanes in austere environments, precisely airdropping cargo to ground troops in a combat zone, aerial refueling humongous airplanes within feet of other huge aircraft at 250 mph, and saving the lives of the critically wounded at 30,000 feet are all unarguably high in the risk management department. But as successes, they are possible because of the lifetime of skills we have accumulated and honed.

Are our successes in our professional lives due to all that 'character' we built as kids, or the finger-paintings we created when we were 3-years old? It's hard to say, but I'm sure the lessons and discoveries of our juvenile years are a good start in accomplishing the hard things we do as adults. In the military, we operate at the pinnacle of doing hard things and we do them routinely. We do them not only because we can and because they make us better, but because they represent service to our country. Let's keep on doing the hard things!

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