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Achieving Anything Easy

Let’s call “easy” tasks the kinds of things you know you can accomplish given enough time and effort. Likewise, for the sake of this essay, “hard” problems are those that require something unattainable through mere effort, like a brilliant insight, or just something downright impossible.

Under this system, even the most difficult video games are easy. I might have to attempt some difficult section hundreds of times, or might have to spend dozens of hours leveling up before I’m ready to take on a challenging final boss. But these systems are designed to bend to sustained effort, and I know that given enough practice time, I’ll be able to come out victorious.

Many problems that may seem to require a flash of insight are also easy. This is a great exercise if you’ve never done it before: can you prove the Pythagorean theorem? Hundreds of proofs have been discovered by people no more magically mathematically gifted than you. It might take you ten minutes or it might take ten weeks, but I’d bet you can come up with something.

Even tasks that are less boxed-in and more creative can be found to be easy. Let’s say there’s some piano sonata I’m interested in, and my goal is to play it “beautifully”. While it’s hard to know when that state has been achieved, I’m willing to say that it will be achieved eventually just through application of enough time and effort.

This doesn’t mean that every problem that’s already been solved is necessarily “easy” though. If you tell me to come up with a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem without reading Wiles’ proof, I pretty much simply won’t be able to. There’s a huge gap between my knowledge and the kind of knowledge needed. Maybe there’s even a qualitative difference in that the kinds of one-off insights you need to have to prove something like that aren’t accessible to anyone at my level.

This line is fuzzy, of course—what if I dedicated the next 50 years to reading as much as possible about this one problem, becoming a mathematical expert along the way? It then seems at least somewhat possible that I’d manage to have the same kind of insight as Wiles. So maybe all problems achievable within a human lifetime are “easy”. However, I think it makes more sense for this classification to leave out these kinds of prizewinning insight-based tasks that make whole careers.

Becoming Roger Federer seems hard, in the sense that even with every waking moment dedicated to practicing tennis, most of us will never come close to his level. However, someone who’s never held a racket before eventually becoming a 4.0 player is “easy” (despite the large amount of time and effort it involves).

The good news is that nearly every single everyday problem we run into is easy! At least in this sense of being effort-constrained…. If you want to achieve something, even without having the slightest clue of where to start, you can usually take solace in this idea, set aside some number of hours, and make huge progress in the direction you want to go.